Redfall’s Single-Player Is No Prey Or Dishonored

Redfall’s Single-Player Is No Prey Or Dishonored

At this point, saying Redfall ain’t that great of a time is hardly a new or hot take. But, to be fair, it kind of felt like the stakes were out for developer Arkane’s co-op infected immersive sim even before its release. So is our collective disappointment just a self-fulfilling prophecy? Are we merely burnt out on poorly performing games and recycled gaming tropes? That answer is probably “yes” more broadly, but after eight or so hours playing Redfall solo on the “Dusk” difficulty, I can tell you that the game itself is just not very well-made or engaging if you’re at all considering solo play.

Redfall, the latest game from developer Arkane — known for narratively gripping and satisfying “immersive sim” games — came out on May 2, and the reaction hasn’t been great. Critics and fans alike have found it to be remarkably disappointing even when one tries to embrace it for what it appears to be: a deeply below average co-op loot shooter set in a New England town under vampiric assault. With hero-esque characters that have their own unique powers and abilities, some genuinely interesting art design (in places, at least), the promise of a story about overthrowing oppressive bloodsuckers, and an insistence from Arkane that the game is soloable, surely one of these elements must work out. Maybe with co-op it’s better, but solo has been a miserable experience.

My time with Redfall has been entirely solo because I have no frie— er, because scheduling is hard. But as Redfall was also promised to offer an immersive sim experience that was designed with, apparently, solo play in mind, I was hoping Redfall would at least scratch that imsim itch for me in some minor way.

I mean, look at this:

Arkane has always been known for crafting narrative-driven, single-player campaigns that allow players unprecedented levels of agency, and Redfall is carrying on that tradition. While this is Arkane’s first co-op experience, you can also play through the entire game on your own.

So it’s not like I’m coming out of left field here. But based on what I’ve played so far, Redfall, at least in its current state, is a pretty dire single-player experience that falls far short of Arkane’s previous highs.

Redfall: a bad loot shooter and an even poorer imsim

If it weren’t for a shred of decent art here and there — I do find the town visually appealing and the way vampires float in the air is nice and spooky — you might think Redfall was an asset flip. I’ve seen these same skill trees and loot mechanics in countless other games at this point. These elements feel slapped on here without any care as to what makes those other games actually rewarding.

In better loot shooters, I feel compelled to sink myself into a world in which the fantasy of wielding massive destructive forces and augmenting it further with loot feels interesting, empowering, or just plain cool (usually it’s a combination). Redfall’s selection of guns and powers aren’t just boring, they offer nothing worthwhile for your time and effort. But I wasn’t just here to chase a power fantasy by filling out a to-do list in the form of a skill tree. I wanted an immersive sim, and maybe I could forgive a tacked-on loot and progression system if at least navigating and moving through its world felt like a fascinating puzzle.

In an immersive sim, I want to, well, immerse myself into a world with a cohesive logic. I want the game to ask me to outsmart it through mastery of a system or the deployment of smart tactics to get around systems and enemies that I can’t face directly.

In Redfall, my first encounter with a vampire made me realise real quick this was no immersive sim. Yes, I had a choice of going “this way” or “that way” to get into the building and I could technically sneak by vamps and their little brainwashed cultist buddies.But trying to play this game like I would Deus Ex, Dishonored, or 2017’s Prey doesn’t work. Hell, it doesn’t even feel as simmy as Cyberpunk 2077 or a modern Fallout sometimes can.

I snuck up on my first vampire with a stake-equipped shotgun in hand, ready to go stab-stab-stab. I crouched to move forward at a slower, hopefully more quiet pace. Once within range, I hit my melee key and, to my surprise, all I did was punch the damn creature. Apparently the stake was for looks? (It’s absurd to think I’d actually want to punch a vampire.) Doesn’t sneaking up on a character grant some kind of attack of opportunity? In an immersive sim no less?

You kinda can just punch everything to death. (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)
You kinda can just punch everything to death. (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)

Nope. Like trying to have a civil conversation with an ex, it just broke out into a fight.

The vampire (not my ex) and I danced around the room a bit before I finally pumped enough bullets into them. That caused a staggered state reminiscent of Doom 2016’s glory kills, but was somehow even less fun (and there were no djenty guitars). That’s where I was supposed to use the stake, it seems. Walk up, hit the melee button, plunge the stake in, vampire goes bye-bye as they burn away. Riveting.

This instance immediately told me that while I’d have a choice of doors, dispatching enemies would always be on the game’s terms. Shoot, shoot, shoot, stagger, stab. It’s tiring and predictable.

There was no sense of immersion, no simulation of variables that allowed me to think creatively. And why bother with any other powers? Guns do the talking here, but that’s something other games do a much better job with. Games like Halo, which I’d still have installed if I hadn’t needed to clear 100GB of space to install this sucker.

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Basic movement and attacks, interaction with the environment, these things should feel consequential in an imsim. Cause and effect, cat and mouse, planning and execution, failure and last resorts. In the words of the Merovingian, causality: action, reaction. But my time in Redfall so far has revealed only one way to engage with the vampires: full frontal violence. Not that that can’t be fun on its own, but as a one and only tactic, it’s disappointing.

The same is true of engaging with any of the human cultists and other mortal antagonists working on behalf of the vampires. Sure, you can sneak around them, but why would you when the foes are so easily dismissed by the same guns you find in the opening level? Honestly, I was able to outsnipe a couple of bots who were sniping at me from a rooftop with the same handgun I found in the starting level. And when I got to the top of the building, I couldn’t grab their rifles. I found nothing but some miscellaneous garbage I could trade in back at home base for other garbage that goes bang or whatever. It made for a mind-numbing cyclical loop of hollow fights with occasional difficulty spikes that just made me roll my eyes and sigh.

Why use stealth or teammates when ya can just spray (and not even have to pray!)? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)
Why use stealth or teammates when ya can just spray (and not even have to pray!)? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)

I eventually upgraded my weapons to deal with the more bullet-spongey vamps like the Augers and Siphons. This was in response to a sharp difficulty spike that appeared shortly before the conclusion of what feels like the main story’s first act or right about when I hit level eight. But while the vamps hit a bit harder now, pursuing weapons of an appropriate level (they’re scattered around everywhere, so no tough task) just made it so that I could mindlessly spam shots, jump around, throw my C4, and basically kill everything while also idly planning what I was gonna have for dinner. I was an unstoppable one-person army without ever investing much attention or care for the nuances of my character’s abilities or the various guns I mindlessly collected by just spamming the pick-up key. This is not a good solo experience.

Redfall’s gameplay betrays its narrative premise

Let’s talk about stealth in immersive sims for a sec, because it’s important to highlight to explain why Redfall feels so deeply hollow for solo play.

In immersive sims I’d characterise stealth as a way to get out of needing to engage in potentially lethal firefights. And it’s often quite challenging to pull off. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s wonderful Palisade Property Bank is a perfect modern example of this. Actually pulling off a stealthy run in that bank feels so rewarding because of how vigilant the patrols are — and how lethal the consequences for screwing up. The gameplay is super satisfying, but it also helps sell the game’s world.

Deus Ex’s conspiracy-laden cyberpunk fantasy combined with this impenetrable bank hiding the secrets and wealth of the powerful and guarded by militant forces makes for a synergistic, cohesive experience. You feel like you’re actually hacking into systems, exploiting the weaknesses of the simulation, getting away with shit you’re not supposed to, slipping under the radar of powerful people and systems.

The systems of power you’re up against in the narrative are proven in the very gameplay itself. The world puts up a resistance with its internal logic and by extension tells the story of existing there more than could any lore dump or cutscene.

You say your town is overrun by vampires...but have you just tried punching them? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)
You say your town is overrun by vampires…but have you just tried punching them? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)

Redfall enjoys nothing of the sort. The vampires have control over this town because the opening cutscene told me so. That’s it. Nothing in the active or passive environmental storytelling or gameplay supports this concept, much less helps build on it.

Most vampires are such pushovers (recently, I annihilated six of them at once, on my own, with a starting shotgun) that it breaks what the narrative is trying to communicate: If it’s this easy to kill these freaks, how in the absolute hell did they take over this town? I alone can wreck multiples of them; and if I run into a particularly tough one? Well, I’ve no cooldown on sprint; fall damage is an avoidable joke; I can and have just outrun all the more powerful ones, dipping into a safehouse to heal up, only to emerge with the flare gun to light up one of the many random oil patches that burns these bastards to a crisp. If I die, I’ll pay a small fine to come back and find the enemies are still down the damage I put into them on my last life.

Great immersive sims feel like an elegant Rubik’s Cube of a puzzle, tempting me to try different solutions to the problem of interlocking systems of combat and stealthy cat-and-mouse, offering me the option to customise my build to further my desired playstyle. And that’s what makes these worlds feel so believable.

Redfall offers no discernible challenge for the solo player, so I have no desire to acquire greater power. Its systems don’t ask me to outsmart it, merely outshoot it (and that’s hardly a challenge). Its vampires and cultists are so fragile that I don’t find the premise believable, and I don’t fear these creatures like I feel I should. I can always outrun and shoot them.

Maybe I'm the monster? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)
Maybe I’m the monster? (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)

Nothing has pushed back hard enough to make me feel like I need to loot for better and more interesting stuff, or meaningfully peruse the skill trees to find something neat that’ll out-trick supernatural threats. I just chase the power and level numbers and keep on firing. And the shooting doesn’t feel fun enough to be worth it for that alone. When I have encountered tougher foes, they just feel harder because they have more hit points, more damage, and maybe a handful of unique powers — which I’ve still been able to outrun every time.

I’ve been playing this game like a damn bozo, runnin’ around shooting shit, and have yet to be humbled or challenged to think by these creatures. My brain doesn’t find this space believable or responsive. Carnival games are more immersive.

Add to that the chatter that erupts from my character every time I kill an enemy, useless quips that don’t make me take the character or the world seriously, and there’s not even a surface level of amusement I can enjoy here. And I say that as someone who was cool with Forspoken — at least there, the narrative often suggested Frey’s wisecracking in the dreamlike fantasy realm of Athia was a release of frustration, of sublimated desires the real world of NYC wouldn’t afford her. I get it there. Here in Redfall? The wisecracking makes me think these characters don’t fear the vampires, and don’t feel up against it all as a serious threat. As a result, I as a player don’t find them to be a serious threat, and thus far they haven’t been.

If they’re not going to take the vampires seriously, why should I? If they’re already sounding cocky as hell at level two, where’s the fantasy of striking back at overwhelming odds, gaining more power to overcome an unstoppable supernatural threat?

Clearly they're paralysed with fear after seeing me massacre countless comrades. (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)
Clearly they’re paralysed with fear after seeing me massacre countless comrades. (Gif: Arkane Studios / Kotaku)

And as for the story? It’s entirely forgettable; the “cutscenes” don’t even have animation, just still characters with a voice-over. There are various story-based missions in which you quite literally need to shoot random enemies called “Sin-Eaters” so they release a psychic memory that you have to then sit there and watch. You usually do that in groups of three. Why it isn’t just a cutscene that wraps everything up at the end of these sequences instead of making me go around and mindlessly shoot more shit is beyond me. If there is a decent story here, the presentation kills it before it’ll ever grab your attention.

Redfall: Don’t bother for solo play

Played solo, Redfall is a boring shooter, a lifeless collect-a-thon of meaningless items, a narrative that cuts its premise short with painfully simplistic, consequence-free gameplay.

I kept pushing forward in Redfall hoping my assessment was misguided. Firefights were always boring or simply exhausting; running around the sprawling maps with no vehicles was laborious; the story was whatever. I’d occasionally even have to reset because the server would crash, or because my little robo buddy would just vanish (he’d come back after restarting the game), or because a quest wouldn’t progress despite me completing all the necessary steps. I don’t think I’ll be firing this thing back up, and I’ve no motivation to play it with other people. I’d rather just play more Prey or Deus Ex.

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