Redfall review - A bit of a mess, but not without its pleasures
The October Country.
I'm a fan of the Chickering safe house. I'm glad I unlocked it. The fast travel is handy, but also it's just a nice kind of place to hang out. Not sure about the floor-to-ceiling stars-and-stripes on one wall, but the flag got less creepy, at least, once I moved in close and discovered that what I'd taken to be a string of bulletholes across the middle of it actually resolved into a chain of Christmas lights once the textures had loaded in. Elsewhere, big fridges, med kits and ammo, sleeping bags covered with the odd spray of discarded playing cards. Throw in a bean bag and a copy of Rumours and I never want to leave.
But those fridges. That large metal sink. Wait a minute! What did this place used to be?! A doctor's office? A morgue? Actually, the answer lay on a sideboard, below some voguish honeycomb shelving. Cake stands, all of them empty, and cake dishes with those glass covers that make them look like bell jars. This was a cake store! One look at the hand-drawn map on another wall all but confirmed it. I was smack in the middle of what had once been a little shopping district, with stores and a brewery for neighbors on either side. When I walked outside I saw an area where there had once been tables and chairs, perhaps, and a sign still up: the Fruit Fly Smoothie Bar! Mmmm! And also Yuck, obv. Because that's Redfall.
I have thought about this smoothie bar a lot over the last few days, the smoothie bar that was then overturned to create a makeshift shelter during a vampire apocalypse. So much of this confounding game about a small town overtaken by bloodsucking horrors is wrapped up in the layers I've found here in this smoothie bar, I think. There's the ammo and the med kits, but also the dual nature of the bar itself - the sense at first that it might be a nice family-run cake shop followed by the reveal that, no, it was almost certainly a naff influencer smoothie joint filled with minted people drinking activated walnut water, no doubt, and taking pictures of their frappes for Insta. Those honeycomb shelves suddenly made a lot more sense, I can tell you. And the name - Fruit Fly - is perfect. 'Fruit'! Mmm! Oh, and 'Fly'.
Redfall ties me in knots. I am contractually obligated to tell you about all the things that don't work, all the little problems that come together with slightly bigger problems to create a game that probably shouldn't be out and about in this state. Redfall's not unplayable by any means, it's just a bit of a mess, technically, and, I think, in terms of its design. The reviews are low, the user reviews are much lower. Phil at Xbox just apologised for the whole thing. And yet when I go through my day and my alarm beeps and I think, Oh, time for a bit more Redfall! When that happens, I don't mind at all. I don't roll my eyes or shudder. I'm happy to return to this place, and that has to count for something.
It's not - this is a weird thing to get across - it's not because of what we'd traditionally call the 'game' part. Redfall's problems come in layers, in scales and geometries, but a lot of it focuses on the fact that it's a fast-paced co-op shooter.
There's technical stuff wrong with the game, from slow loading textures and the stumbling frame rate to the fact that yesterday I tried to use my super in a tight spot and ended up frozen in space with no super and no ability to use a gun anymore - so I was in an even tighter spot really. The default controls are both sluggish and skittish, making aiming deeply unpleasant. This means that anybody's first few hours with Redfall are going to involve going online and finding suggestions - there are many, and they often conflict with one another - of how to tweak the aiming in the options to make the game feel just a bit better. Games really live in their controls, and shooters doubly so. Redfall, even once I'd muddled with the settings a bit, never genuinely feels that much fun to control. Aiming remains a chore whatever I do, and even using the reticule to select objects in the world can be annoying. Mantling sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Ladders can - occasionally, and this may already be patched out - leave you stuck on them while baddies pump bullets into you and laugh. Sucks to be you, ladder boy!
Those baddies are a problem too. Standard non-beastie grunts called cultists come in packs but are all hobbled by strange, often foolish AI. When I first started playing, I noticed how they all took ages to spot an intruder on their turf even though all they seemed to be doing was trying to spot intruders. They would also bunch together in doorways, greedy to be the first one through so everyone ended up stuck. They would often use the wrong weapons for the distances involved, so they'd snipe up close and shotgun from a distance. I will be honest: I think after a recent patch they still do some of this stuff, but I can't be sure, and that's because I've stopped paying attention to them. Gunfights with standard enemies are something I blow through without trying to think too much. They're annoying to fight, but I have stopped noticing how they're annoying. It's like finding a stubborn knot in your shoelace when you're trying to take off your shoes: the next few minutes aren't going to be fun, but let's get on with it, eh?
Vampires are a little better, partly because their visual designs make them stand out, these tall alien creatures with long limbs. They float off the ground, which is just gloriously weird and creepy, and while cultists sort of wobble about trying to work out whether to take cover or reload, vampires will often sprint right at you, the cardio hounds of the undead. Vampires need to be downed and then staked, or they revive. They come in a range of different styles, with different abilities, which makes target prioritisation a bit more of a necessary tactic. Once they've died (is that the right term for vampires?), they often leave little piles of ash for you to hunt through for special loot. But still, beneath the spooky exterior, I'm often aware there isn't a lot going on there.
Like I said, none of this stuff makes the game unplayable. It just adds up to a shooter where combat is far from the most entertaining part of the mix, and that's despite the loot - a decent range of weapon types, but nothing too charismatic - and a handful of interesting classes to choose from. (Classes will be a reason to return once the game is fixed, BTW. I played as the teleporting, vampire-freezing cryptid hunter guy, but the others seem fun too, including the robo-pal person and the person who can summon an umbrella and a spectral cage lift. Not kidding. A spectral. Cage. Lift.) What I truly like about combat here is the moment before combat, as it were, when a mission has sent you out from a safe house or your HQ, and you get a lay of the land, the area you're targeting, and maybe you zoom in a bit with your sniper scope and spot the main congregations of baddies and you think about what you're going to do to get through all this.
These moments are odd, though, because they remind me that Redfall doesn't really know what it is. Arkane made its name with immersive sims, and some of that DNA has been preserved. There are loads of beautifully written notes and books and articles and all that jazz to read. Levels will give you a wide range of ways to approach them. (If you can get to work through a door or through a vent: welcome! You're in an immersive sim!) But it's also a fast-paced co-op shooter, and I'm not sure I've ever worked out how to play an immersive sim at speed with friends online.
That wouldn't matter so much but I don't think Redfall has fully worked this out either. Most missions with other players descend into enjoyable chaos, but there's always a sense that there's a richer way to play this, but it just won't quite come into focus. Redfall feels like a game that wants you to play it the way that carefully choreographed game demos play out in front of a massive audience at big trade shows. Ubi-demos! Let's faux-banter through The Division for 10 idle minutes with everyone hitting their marks! But I don't think that many people in the real world actually play co-op shooters like that, outside of something genuinely sporty like Rainbow Six, and so Redfall's delicate immersive sim elements cannot always survive the chaos of real life and groups of tooled-up buddies who just want a knockabout evening with something to shoot between nacho refills.
And so this is a co-op shooter I've had the most consistent fun with playing single-player. I get to plan, to take things at my own pace, to actually read the notes scattered around the place and think about the fiction behind the missions. Sure, boss battles, clearly designed for multiple players, become a bit of a roadblock, but they can generally be cheesed. How strange, though: my best moments in Redfall have all been soloing.
It's a shame to have to get through all those issues. Because deep down, I have enjoyed my time here and I want to try and understand why. I try to remember: if how I felt about a video game was the result of some kind of equation I simply stuck objective numbers into - controls, AI, texture loading, 'lastability' - and then just processed the output, I wouldn't need to play any of them in the first place. If the value of a game was just maths based on a series of micro-competencies, they wouldn't need players at all. By most metrics, Redfall still needs a lot of work. And yet I feel very fond of it.
A lot of this is down to the world. Redfall's two open-world areas deliver the kind of New England town that I would love to explore in real life. There are multiple layers to this place too, the fruit and the fruit fly. It's beautiful, Redfall, with its clapboard houses, the flaming autumn reds and golds of the trees, the rickety, noble spire of a church or the looming mass of a grain silo. There's a covered bridge! There's a beautifully preserved movie theatre! The second hub area is a maritime museum! All of these places are lovely to poke about in even before they've had missions strung through them. But they also have a dual nature - the kind of thing Arkane is so good at. Because while Redfall is beautiful, there are all those signs that, long before the vampires arrived, this town was twee and smug and too rich for most people, a place for one-percenters and cloying euphemisms. Redfall is like one of those beautiful fake neighborhoods that Ina Garten and her billionaire pals descend upon to play town every summer: I'll run the cafe, you manage the candy store. See you on the beach later for a bowl of expensive white stuff with rosemary in it.
This makes nosing around the game itself a bit of a puzzle, a bit of a joke to untangle and enjoy. And that's before you layer on the range of environments, the mountains and farmland and wriggly little cliff-top walks. It's before you layer on the rituals stuff too, the safe houses to unlock, the neighborhoods to clear of vampires by raiding the nests, the several big bosses to go after in multi-part quests.
What to make of all this? Years back there was another games writer I used to meet at events now and then who told me once that, every year or so, he re-read Ray Bradbury's The October Country just to get that smoky, clapboard, spooky feeling, that sweet bucolic melancholy that was out of reach most of the time living in London and being nowhere near pine trees and owning an iPhone. I can see Redfall becoming something like this for me - an annual vacation, in the buzzing depths of summer, whisking me to a distant place where it is always almost Halloween.
And Bradbury is doubly relevant here, actually. I wish I could remember where I read this, but the best thing I ever saw about Bradbury was a line to the effect that his imagination was always over-praised. His space ships and shambling horrors never really add up to much. But his work sings because of his memory, the act of seeing and remembering that has brought his best books into focus through the power of sheer, sad-hearted nostalgia.
Redfall has that - the imagination is, well, fine in some places, a bit wonky in others. But as an act of seeing, an act of memory, I've found it really generous. Here is a town, right down to its warp and weft. Down to its clutter and details. And as such, Arkane's made something I value.