Arkane Studios is known for a very specific kind of game: immersive sims. The team made its mark on the industry with intricate sandboxes that feature systems and mechanics interacting with each other in fascinating ways. Games like Dishonored and Dishonored 2 are standout examples of why the developer is heralded as a master of the genre.
But, in recent years, the studio has started to reassess what it means to be an Arkane game. Prey, while still a science-fiction take on the immersive sim genre, served as the foundation for Mooncrash, a DLC that reconfigured the game into a roguelike. Deathloop leaned harder into that genre by embracing the run-based format to break down what makes an immersive sim so compelling and asking the player to examine the pieces and put them back together.
Redfall continues this process of reflection and reinvention, and it’s perhaps the biggest departure from what we expect an Arkane game to be. But after getting some hands-on time with the game, it quickly became apparent that underneath the open-world, first-person shooting, and loot, there are systems, mechanics, and gameplay opportunities that are unmistakably Arkane.
Like Prey: Mooncrash and Deathloop, Redfall is aiming to take the fundamentals of Arkane’s tried-and-true formula and build anew on top of them. This, according to creative director Ricardo Bare, was how it ended up with an open-world, cooperative shooter that has multiple characters with unique playstyles.
“If you look at our catalog of games, we always try to do something a little bit different,” said Bare. “Dishonored is very stealth-oriented and it’s got a mission structure that’s more classic: You do a mission, you travel there, you go back, you do a mission, travel–they’re not connected together like an open world. But then if you look at Prey, [it] has stealth and it’s one big level–a big-ass space station. You can go anywhere, so the mission structure’s far more open. That’s a baby open world.
“I think you can look at those two games and go, ‘Arkane made both of those,’ but they’re very different from each other. They have a common creative core; for Mooncrash you can see there’s lots of procedurally generated content in there and you can play four different characters. So every time, we stretch ourselves a little bit and we add some different elements into the mix. We wanted to go open world for a long time, and so we’ve been stretching towards that, and we wanted to do something with multiple characters. But then some of us just personally love playing co-op games together–we play D&D together, we play Borderlands together, we play Diablo together–and we were like, ‘Can we do one of our kind of games but with co-op?’ So that was some of the drive behind Redfall.”
Bare’s cited influences are readily apparent in Redfall. Although I was only able to play the game solo–which, for the record, seems completely viable even though you don’t have AI teammates–the building blocks for a fun co-op multiplayer experience are there. Not just that, but it looks to be set up in a way that will still encourage the kind of creativity and expression that people want out of Arkane’s games. Key to this are four characters, each of whom has their own distinct personality–kind of like Borderlands.
Jacob Boyer is your classic ex-soldier, Remi De Larosa is the engineer of the group, Layla Ellison specializes in biomedicine, and Devinder is a cryptozoologist and inventor. However, these archetypes are given some extra flair both narratively and mechanically. Jacob, for example, has a vampiric eye and a spectral raven, the former of which allows him to summon a powerful sniper rifle and deliver devastatingly accurate headshots to take out groups of cultists in an instant. The latter, meanwhile, is extremely vital for scouting and marking enemies without giving away your position. Jacob can also cloak himself to sneak through enemy territory or get into a more advantageous spot before unleashing chaos.
Remi, meanwhile, has a great degree of combat experience and has a robotic pal named Bribon that she can use to pull agro and distract enemies–think Claptrap, but not annoying. She can also lob sticky explosives and do area-of-effect healing. Mysterious circumstances have bestowed Layla with telekinetic powers, which she can use to place a shield ahead of her and then use a shockwave emitted by the ability to push her away, or to summon a spectral elevator that launches her and her companions into the air. Most interestingly, however, she can also call upon a friendly vampire–her ex-boyfriend–who will go around and take out enemies for a short duration. Finally, Devinder has clearly spent way too much time online and has theories about what’s going on, but more importantly, he’s got a device that shocks cultists and immobilizes them for a short time, another that sends out a wave of ultraviolet light that instantly turns vampires into stone, making them breakable, and can throw a teleporter to get to hard-to-reach places.
On their own, each of these characters introduces a variety of strategic considerations and creates opportunities to get imaginative with how to approach a roving group of cultists, or a vampire that may be patrolling an area. And as you work your way through the skill tree, these abilities develop to unlock more potential. However, what will be interesting to see is how these characters synergize with each other in multiplayer. Since I didn’t get any co-op experience, much of that has been left to the imagination for now, but as I played, I definitely had moments where I thought the ability of one of the other characters would have come in handy, so it’s clear that Arkane has crafted scenarios where some characters excel over others to encourage comradery and coordination.
Special abilities aside, I was surprised by how solid the first-person shooting felt. Although Arkane’s previous games are built around first-person shooter dynamics, in terms of pace and intensity, these games have always been atypical, especially in comparison to the likes of Call of Duty or Destiny. But Redfall’s shooting feels like it’s in a good place, with weapons that provide satisfying feedback and have a heft to them. Pistols range from quick and snappy for when I was trying to stay on the move, to punchy when I needed to clear out a room; sniper rifles were precise and took a decent chunk off health bars when aiming for the head; and assault rifles felt suited to crowd control and getting into the thick of the battle. Coupled with the various abilities characters have, there was a good back-and-forth dynamic between guns and powers that kept me engaged.
Underneath the open-world, first-person shooting, and loot there are systems, mechanics, and gameplay opportunities that are unmistakably Arkane
I was worried that the looter shooter design trope of whittling away at health bars endlessly would become tiresome, but enemies didn’t feel like bullet sponges, and there was also an execution mechanic where, after a certain amount of damage, I could get in close and stab vampires through the heart to deliver a finishing blow using the stakes attached to weapons. Doing this is key, as otherwise vampires will heal and get back into the fight. Along with the other two pillars of combat, I found myself staying engaged throughout my time. Naturally, that time was very limited, so it remains to be seen if this can be sustained through multiple hours, but thus far I am encouraged by it.
For me, though, one of my favorite parts of Arkane’s games is the stories they tell, whether that’s the overarching plot or the smaller tales within it. Redfall’s take on vampire fiction is intriguing, as it infuses classic gothic creatures of the night mythos with a healthy amount of science gone wrong and a corporation that’s up to no good.
“We think vampires are just cool right up from the get-go. But if you look at them historically, they never really go away–they’re perennially popular. It’s just that each generation or each group of creatives reinterpret them and put their own spin on them. The reason they work is because they serve as a metaphor for something, whatever’s on people’s minds at the time.
“The thing that I think that makes them interesting is, in our case, it’s not a disease. It’s not an accident that happened in a lab. It was deliberate. It’s not like, ‘Oh no, I got bit by a vampire, I’m going to turn, let’s find the cure.’ There is no cure, just like there’s no cure for a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. They wanted to become the butterfly. You can’t reverse that because it’s not like a cold; it’s a metamorphosis. They became on the outside what they already were on the inside, and that’s why the cultists worship them. They’re like, ‘Please make me a vampire too,’ but it has to happen deliberately because the vampire has to want to turn you. It’s not like, ‘I got some vampire spit on me and now it’s inevitable.'”
The setup for my play session involved the Hollow Man, a vampire god who is worshipped by cultists. Before his transformation, he was a blood researcher, but the circumstances of his ascension are unclear, and the details are essential to bringing him down. So, off we went to his very well-guarded mansion to figure it all out.
Despite my objective being clear, I was immediately distracted by side quests and other activities. The group of survivors I was running with had made a fire station their base and, unfortunately, a popcorn machine in the building was busted, so I decided that fixing it could help boost morale. This tangent took me to the Overton, a classic theater with a spacious atrium, balconies overlooking the seating, and plenty of side corridors and rooms to explore. Once that was done, I was alerted to the fact that there were safehouses nearby that could be secured by completing a series of smaller quests and then taking out the underboss that held dominion over the area. Along the way, I rifled through dilapidated buildings to find resources and read notes to find out more about how the vampires took over and how the people were affected.
The challenge with Redfall, however, is balancing this kind of storytelling within a multiplayer experience where the focus is on the people you’re playing with. Bare indicated that the focus for storytelling is on the town and your efforts to liberate it, as opposed to you as a character. As a result, the team has put effort into ensuring that the fictional town of Redfall and its vampires are memorable.
“Typically we make a game with just one protagonist and so the story’s about them, it’s the story about Morgan, it’s about Corvo,” he explained. “And so we couldn’t really do that this time, at least not without multiplying our team’s size by four. Because we have four heroes, the story can’t be just about [one] hero. So I think our approach this time is the story is about Redfall and the experience of fighting the vampires.”
Redfall, Massachusetts is a virtual playground much larger than anything in Dishonored, Prey or Deathloop; the closest thing to a bona fide open world that Arkane has made. The town has been besieged by vampires that have blotted out the sun and severed connections to the outside world. That leaves it up to the player to clear up the infestation, as well as liberate the town and its people.
When it comes to finding examples of that Arkane magic in this game, based on what I saw thus far, the world itself is a pretty good indicator. Like Dunwall, Karnaca, Talos I, and Blackreef before it, Redfall has a distinct sense of place that merges the mundane with the monstrous to create a setting that feels grounded but also fantastical. At first blush, there’s a beauty to Redfall that is inviting. It has a rustic autumnal vibe that is almost picturesque, but then you look a little closer and notice how it has been corrupted; perpetual darkness that is only alleviated by the faint light emanating from a oppressed sun; people who have thrown away their humanity in hopes that they’ll be selected to ascend to vampiredom; powerful vampires menacingly gliding around and occasional unexpectedly teleporting.
As with all open worlds, one of the challenges is making the spaces in between the key landmarks and destinations interesting, or at the very least giving players a way to engage with the world that keeps them invested. For Breath of the Wild, the ability to climb anything meant everything felt like an opportunity; Elden Ring streamlined traversal by giving players Torrent, a spectral steed; and Assassin’s Creed relies on its parkour (most of the time) to ensure the player stays involved in moving around. Redfall doesn’t have any of these, at least in the time I played, and instead looks to be relying on giving players as many combat opportunities as possible. These situations are made more interesting by inviting players to make the most of the combat’s depth, and also use the openness of the environment. Cultists serve as fodder to quickly pick off, while the vampires present more of a challenge. There’s also a threat level that slowly rises as you clean the area up, and if you attract the attention of a district’s vampire ruler, it sends in a character called The Rook.
This character functions a lot like the Nightmare from Prey. It appears in a dramatic lightning storm and is a hulking, bullet sponge of a vampire that feels impossible to kill and, worse still, attracts other vampires to your location. This dynamic means that you need to be careful about how you approach certain areas and manage how much heat you’re drawing. In my playtime, I found myself being judicious about which fights I took on, occasionally choosing to use Devinder’s teleportation ability to get onto rooftops to skirt around gangs of cultists, or stealthing my way through vampire infested territory. Again, it remains to be seen whether this push-and-pull power struggle is enough to keep tedium at bay. The area I played was quite large, but was only the tutorial area–akin to Breath of the Wild’s Great Plateau–so some visual variety is likely as more of the map opens up.
“Once you beat the Hollow Man, you move to a second district,” Bare said. “That’s even bigger than this one, and it’s got three Vampire Gods that are fighting over the territory. We care about environmental storytelling deeply and so for us it was [about] picking and choosing our battles. It’s finding spots [to] just pour the density in and then leaving breathing room around it. So the big open cornfield outside the farm, that doesn’t need to have environmental storytelling details every 10 feet because it’s a big cornfield that you’re creeping through at night. It’s moody ambience. But then when you get to the farm, the farm is just chock-full of stuff for you to soak up.”
My main concern going into Redfall was that it’d be another looter shooter in the mold of what everyone thinks is popular, and in the process, lose what makes Arkane’s games special. My time with the game brought some much needed clarity to what Redfall actually is, and it is a looter shooter in the mold of popular titles like Borderlands. But, most importantly, at its core are design ideas that have enabled memorable exploration and narrative, as well as satisfying gameplay, in Arkane’s previous games. But just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’ll work, and moving into the open-world looter shooter genre is a big pivot for the studio. As a fan of Arkane’s work, I am more intrigued by it now and, regardless of how it comes together, it’ll be an interesting and distinct take on the genre at the very least.
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