Redfall: Biting Off More Than You Can Chew
If you’ve read my posts on Dishonored and Dishonored 2, you know that I’m something of an Arkane Studios fanboy. As someone who mostly plays video games for the story and world, for me these guys are at the tip of the spear when it comes to immersive sims.
Which is why I was so disappointed when I finally got the chance to boot up Arkane Austin’s latest contribution to the Arkane portfolio: Redfall.
I won’t lie to you, my perception of the game before I started playing had been somewhat colored by the dozens of reviews that critically lambasted it for everything it did wrong. This thing had been savaged (and rightly so) by everyone under the sun, and has permanently damaged the reputation of not only Arkane, but the XBox ecosystem as a whole. So I went expecting (and looking) for bugs, glitches, errors, and general stupidity.
All of which I found. BUT, there was something underneath the layer of bullshit that had been smeared over the top of this game, and it was so close I could almost touch it. It was a strange feeling that this game desperately wanted to be something different than what it was.
As I said, Arkane is known for immersive sims. Dishonored and Prey are the two defining games in their genre, and are not only critical darlings, but also resonate with their respective fanbases in a way that hasn’t been seen since Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls (which is why it always confused me that neither of them met sales projections, but that’s another post entirely). Redfall has that same DNA, but it’s been spread out across 40 hours, instead of a tight 15.
Consider the above photo: An exploded view of a car’s engine. This is Redfall. All the highly-detailed, precision-machined parts are there to be seen; they’ve just been exploded out with plenty of blank space between them.
Redfall’s main problem is that there is nothing there to fill that empty space. Instead of a short series of brilliantly-realized, highly detailed streets to build a level (a la Dishonored), we get a massive open space – that’s mostly empty – that we’re forced to run back and forth across to reach the precision pieces of story and immersion that Arkane is known for.
And because there is so much blank space that has to be at least tangentially filled in, it became impossible for a single dev team to apply the same careful and measured approach to level design. Every reviewer I’ve seen has called Redfall underbaked. I keep hearing, “It needed more time.” I submit to you the following statement: Redfall could’ve been delayed for another year, and it still wouldn’t have been up to the standards that we expect from Arkane. It’s just too fucking big.
This concept can also be applied to the playable characters. Instead of a single character that can grow and evolve to fit the power fantasy that players want, Arkane decided to spread the interesting skills they’d created across four separate characters in order to shoehorn in a multiplayer system that most Arkane fanboys (such as myself) are never going to engage in. It’s just not why we play Arkane games. This process has left the characters feeling so anemic that perhaps ten percent of their skill trees are actually worth investing in, the rest being padded with useless “5% bonus to damage” type of effects.
A perfect in-game example of this “butter scraped over too much bread” philosophy is a location in-game called the Blackwell House.
A medium-sized farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, it is a location filled with barricaded rooms, blood-streaked walls, and several locked doors that are just begging to be opened. Sounds pretty interesting, right?
In a standard Arkane game, you would explore the house, and find the keys to these doors while unravelling the mysteries of who lived there and what happened to them. Instead, you are forced to run all over hell and gone using the barest of hints (I looked it up online, since I didn’t feel like wasting three hours on it) to collect each key in a separate corner of the fucking map. So what could’ve been an interesting ten to fifteen minutes of side content becomes an hour-long slog (and that’s with looking up the key locations online) that has you hating the game by the end of it.
This approach to storytelling can be felt throughout the entire game. Little kernels of story that are spaced so few and far between that it honestly feels like Arkane never got past the narrative design phase. It’s like they bullet-pointed the ideas they had at a concept meeting and said, “Yep, that’s good enough; we don’t need anything beyond that.”
Which is a crying shame, because what is there is every bit as amazing as anything in Dishonored or Prey. The Hollow Man storyline (no spoilers) is haunting, and disgusting, and terrifying, all at the same time. It could’ve been fleshed out to be an instant classic that stood alongside the likes of Bioshock’s “Would You Kindly?” or KoTOR’s Revan Reveal.
And all of this is without even touching the myriad technical issues that the game has shipped with. Issues that have, frankly, made me embarrassed for Arkane Studios and the product they felt was good enough to ship. Map clipping, texture pop-in, UI bugs, AI issues, weapon glitches, t-posing, frame rate drops, and hard crashes are all things that should never appear in an Arkane game. I expect this kind of shit from Ubisoft. Not from them.
There has even been a consistent bug where my game will not allow me to crouch without completely restarting.
In my opinion, it would be impossible for Arkane to bring Redfall up to the standard we expect from them – it’s too fucking big, and its issues are too deeply-rooted in its core. You can patch as many bugs as you want, but when the narrative is fucked, the map is too big, the game world is bland, and the gameplay loop is monotonous, there’s just no fixing it.
I’m going to jump on the bandwagon here and say that, honestly, Arkane needs to take the “L” with Redfall and move on to the next one, with an eye towards bringing their quality back up to snuff. They’re one of the last few developers that are capable of producing truly masterful games, and I’d hate to see them get shuttered by either XBox or Bethesda.