Few video game developers have as clear a creative mandate as Arkane. The studio has become synonymous with deep world creation and smart environmental storytelling, and for the intentional emergence that erupts as simple rulesets clash against complex combat and movement systems. Even as the studio weaves so deftly between genres and styles – from Arx Fatalis to Dishonored, Prey to Deathloop – these threads of commonality bind the best Arkane games togehter. What then of Redfall, the cooperative shooter that sees a squad of mischievous vampire hunters work to exterminate an infestation of bloodsuckers from a small coastal town in Massachusetts?
Redfall isn't special because it is bound by those same threads, woven so tightly with arcane magic – it is special because it is willing to loosen them. "It's certainly true that if you work on the same thing for long enough you eventually want to clear your head and stretch a little," says Arkane studio director Harvey Smith. "Maybe we stretched too much this time – we probably should have picked either an open world or cooperative multiplayer. But if Redfall comes together at the quality level we think it will, then it will be a different beast. It's really tremendous; it does a lot of cool stuff."
Welcome to Redfall, Massachusetts
Redfall isn't the video game that you think it is. Following its reveal, the Xbox Series X exclusive has drawn comparisons to the Left 4 Deads of this world. Great games, concedes Arkane creative director Ricardo Bare, but not exactly what the studio is shooting for. "It's totally understandable for somebody to come to that conclusion. There are four playable characters, you can play together cooperatively, and you're going against the undead. But, in terms of the way that you play and experience Redfall, it's not like those games at all. Redfall is more like loading into Far Cry."
When you think of Far Cry, your mind is likely flooded with images of exotic landscapes and faraway paradises. Redfall is embracing more familiar territory, what Smith lovingly describes as a "crappy tourist town" in New England. Creepy cornfields and abandoned fairgrounds, dilapidated houses and cold seaside boardwalks, and plenty of bars and restaurants held in ill repute by the locals. Well, they were, until most were driven away by the invading vampires, the cultists who worship them, and Bellwether Security; a shady private military company looking for nothing but trouble.
"When we started on Redfall, we wanted to tackle a familiar location for once," laughs Smith, speaking to Arkane's propensity for building elaborate destinations. Dunwall, an industrial whaling city overrun with plague rats; Talos I, an alt-history space station with an alien ecology; and Blackreef, an island cursed to time loop through the swinging sixties. "We wanted to take a familiar setting and go deep on it. Redfall island should be a place where, after hours of exploration, you feel like you know it the way you know Talos or Dunwall. When I say we wanted to stretch, that's what I mean: What if we took all of our experience – and our creative values – and put it into an open world?"
That world is where Redfall really diverges from any lingering horde shooter comparisons. Those genre games have a familiar rhythm: load into linear missions with friends, and fight waves of enemies until the end. Redfall has a broader objective, affording you the freedom to linger (or fight) at your leisure. Defining the shape of your adventure is all part of the appeal. "You're in a big-ass open world," enthuses Bare. "We have a home base where you can talk to NPCs and get side-quests. You can go to the mission table and pick up story-driven missions. Or you can not give a shit about any of that and just head outside; pick a direction, start hauling ass, and run into the living-world stuff that we have going on."
By Arkane's standards, the description of a "big-ass open world" is accurate – Redfall is an unfathomably larger space than Prey's Talos I. But by modern open-world standards, the titular island will likely be quaint by comparison. There's an appeal in that too, with a denser playspace allowing Arkane to flex its talent for emergent narrative design. "I think we will eventually go back to the very sealed immersive sim-like environments," Smith considers. "But just once we wanted to know what it would be like to wander an Arkane open world and see where each little road will take you."
"You'll want to see if you can get into a barn you found, climb a fire lookout tower that you spotted in the distance, or try and get into a house to read all the notes scattered inside," Smith continues, explaining that you'll still have the freedom to approach missions, areas, and in-world locations with the same curiosity and ingenuity as you could in Dishonored or Prey. "Some of Redfall's most powerful moments come from wandering around, absorbing the world, and getting caught up in high action for a moment. That was the atmosphere we set out to create from the beginning."
If there's a negative to be drawn from a Far Cry comparison, it's one of scale. Ubisoft's open worlds have become debilitatingly large, and I'll cop to feeling some sense of hesitation before launching into a new one these days. But there's a key distinction in Redfall's design which calmed my nerves: there are no vehicles. "In terms of freedom, there's what you would expect from other open worlds, but Redfall is an on-foot game – the scale and the pace is a little slowed down in that respect," says Bare. "We want you creeping through a cornfield at night in the fog, hearing vampires whisper in the dark. Maybe you'll spot a farmhouse in the distance and sneak over to it, only to find that it's full of cultists and a few trapped survivors who you can save. That's the kind of vibe that Redfall has."
"Harvey and I have been working together for 20 years and, as far back as us working on Deus Ex, I can remember us as a group playing Diablo together. And then over the years it's been Diablo 2, and then Borderlands, and so on. All these games that are super fun to play in co-op; when we're not working on our own games, we're playing these kinds of games together as friends," says creative director Ricardo Bare. "We were like, how can we make the kind of games that we like to make but somehow play them together?"
"I live in constant fear that people are going to figure out that we're just D&D players who think video games could be cooler and deeper," says studio director Harvey Smith, laughing. "D&D is the best co-op game of all time, and I think people would be shocked if they knew how much we have all played D&D together as a group, from Origin Systems to ION Storm to Arkane. I am currently in three different D&D campaigns, and I still play with Ricardo on Monday nights."
These examples barely scratch the surface of what you'll find in Redfall's world, which is divided into two distinct districts – one is a sprawling urban area, and the other more rural in design. There are neighborhoods held hostage by vampires; liberating these parts of the town for the people will open up Safe Houses, and make it more comfortable for the citizens who couldn't escape before the island was cut off from civilization. You'll encounter survivors who may ask you for a favor or two, with the opportunity to level up or earn new gear waiting as a reward. Nests can emerge in a shared psychic-space, should a group of vampires fall into a Blood Trance. Storms form gradually over time, signaling the arrival of powerful Vampire Gods called Rooks. Bellwether Security squads patrol the island, and cultists set up roadblocks to bottleneck any who remain committed to the land of the living. And then there's the story campaign that underpins the adventure, which follows the fallout of a scientific longevity experiment gone exceptionally wrong.
Many of these aspects of Redfall aren't predefined activities, but part of the simulated space. "Redfall sometimes feels like what you'd get if you blended the Arkane creative values with Far Cry 2 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R.," Smith continues. "That's the kind of thing that we have wanted to do for a long time." You may find instances of combat, story vignettes, or countless chaotic results as Arkane's systems clash together. One part of this complex puzzle is the day-night cycle, which remains despite a powerful Vampire God – the Black Sun – having established a local Eclipse. "The sun sets and the sun rises, and we have different times of the day," says Smith. "It changes the feel of the game radically."
Smith doesn't mean from a purely visual aesthetic either, with the time impacting everything from how viable stealth is before combat erupts to how the various factions appear in the world. Vampires may spawn during the day, but remain dormant, becoming active at nightfall. Bellwether Security may up their patrols before the cultists come out in force to greet the shadow walkers. Sometimes all three of these factions will be caught at war, with your squad acting as casual bystanders to the carnage of competing interests. Smith says: "You may start a mission at high noon and get distracted along the way. By the time you reach the objective, it may be nighttime with different enemy spawns. Every slight difference pushes you, naturally, to take a different approach."
Become a better vampire slayer
Freedom has always been a core aspect of Arkane games. Smith admits that the introduction of multiplayer "costs you some things" due to the game needing to "register an event, communicate it to the server, deliver it out to the other players." But that isn't to say that Redfall will be any less of an Arkane game because of this creative decision. If anything, fans of Dishonored and Prey should relish the opportunity to see how aspects like advancing RPG powers, immersive movement and shooting, fluid sliding and climbing can combine in a more ambitious design scenario. "What you get in exchange is tremendous," says Smith. "When four people sit down to play through Redfall together, and they are synergizing their powers, aiding each other, and kicking off emergent events it brings tremendous value."
Cooperation is optional. You can slay alone or squad up, with Redfall seamlessly blending single-player and multiplayer options – not all that dissimilar to the Borderlands games. And the comparisons to Gearbox's co-op shooter don't end there. At the beginning of Redfall, you'll be able to choose between one of four characters: Devinder Crousley, the verified cryptid hunter; Layla Ellison, the telekinetic threat in student debt; Jacob Boyer, the deadeye with an undead eye; and Remi De La Rosa, the ingenious engineer. Once you start the campaign, your character selection is locked in for the duration of the game – if you choose to play solo, you'll do so without the other three heroes around you.
"Redfall is very much a hazards-based game. You need to watch out for hazards in the world while you play, and you have to exploit the hazards because the vampires are powerful," says studio director Harvey Smith, speaking to one way in which combat encounters can change. "Vampires immolate really well; if you can make cultists stagger into bonfires they will catch fire, so you can burn up a lot of enemies."
"We also have the inverse of a hazard," Bare continues. "You can find places – Safe Houses, and other places out in the open world – where you can repair and turn on battery powered UV light that people have set up. Using these you can set up little pockets of protection, because if you can lure vampires into them they will slowly fry and eventually petrify."
In co-op, there is no restriction on multiples of the same vampire hunter joining one party, although Smith says that there are benefits to having a well-rounded group outside of the variety it will bring to combat. "We have a very dynamic dialogue system where, depending on what heroes you put together in combination, they will talk to each other and get to know one another. And we have a mechanical system where the longer the heroes play together, the more intimate their dialogue lines become and, eventually, they'll get a game mechanic buff called the 'Trust Buff.'"
Regardless of how you choose to play this drop-in, drop-out experience, Arkane is keen to emphasize that flexibility is at the heart of Redfall. The game will support stealth combat and all-guns blazing approaches, and everything in between as you cycle through a massive arsenal of weapons and as the unique powers inherent to each of the heroes begin to combine. "While it is true that this is more of a shooter than anything else we've ever worked on," Bare considers, "a lot of the fun comes from each of the heroes' powers. Whether you are synergizing Remy and Jacob together or even if just playing by yourself – using the powers, combining them, and upgrading your character is a lot of fun."
Even with a renewed focus on advancing supernatural powers, Arkane knew it had to get the gunplay right. "There's a certain level of work you have to put into a shooter to just reach the minimum bar, because you'll inevitably get compared to all the other shooters out there if your guns don't feel good," says Bare, who notes that the studio hired in FPS experts at the outset of production, and even looked to the broader Bethesda network for assistance. "We got insight from some of our sister studios; the people who worked on Doom came over and gave us feedback a couple of times, things like that, and we're pretty happy with the results."
"We have the usual array of weapons like assault rifles and shit like that, many of which are jury-rigged by the locals because they've been cut off," Smith adds, who notes that standard guns are equipped with random modifiers when you find them. But the real draw to Redfall's FPS combat is the special vampire-hunting weapons. "Your weapons can have stakes on the end – if the vampires are vulnerable, the only way to truly kill them is to stake them otherwise they regenerate. There are flare guns, UV beams, and even stake launchers – which use found ammo like broken-off pool cues and fireplace pokers." Bare adds: "You know, the kind of weapons you would want if you were having to kill vampires."
You won't hold onto weapons for long though. Smith and Bare are keen to emphasize that part of the RPG economy of Redfall involves "looking at the traits of each weapon you find and deciding if it's what you really want." Smith uses the example of two shotguns he stumbled across in the wild: one a double-barrelled menace that has a greater chance to set hazards on fire, and the other that offers more long-range viability and a percentage chance to fire off a UV flash to petrify vampires within a 10-foot radius.
It's all about defining your playstyle. Scrapping guns when you out-level them, and picking weapons which complement your chosen path through the skill trees – each hero has four available, grouping specific character traits and more general utility options like health recovery or increased storage for ammunition and lockpicks. "It's all a part of a dynamic combat system that we have going on. Knowing when to use one gun versus another, and knowing when to switch to one of the vampire hunter guns is all relevant to the experience," says Smith.
The power of Game Pass
Redfall is a different type of game for Arkane. That much is clear from the open world, the cooperative design, and the enhanced focus on gunplay. But underpinning every design decision are the studio's creative values, and its instinctual lean towards creating immersive, simulated spaces. But there's added pressure this time around, owing in part to a certain subscription service. "I feel like with Xbox Game Pass, the potential is here for us to say: This is Arkane, and these are our creative values – we can expose a lot of people to the way that we make games. I hope we can turn people onto what we do: Deep world creation, environmental storytelling, the emergent results of combat and your powers, and creating lovingly crafted worlds with a real sense of history and character."
"The pool that Game Pass offers is huge for us. It's kind of shocking, and scary in a way. Like, how many people are going to play Redfall in the first week? What if it's a lot more than we anticipated… we're going to get a lot of feedback very quickly, and a lot of people will see what we've spent the last few years on. Redfall is our pandemic game, man. It's easy to forget now, but there were dark days during the pandemic. People on my team were sitting at home alone, losing their minds because we didn't have vaccines yet, and nobody was sure what it meant for their kids and for the economy. The team carried each other through it all; Zenimax, Bethesda, and Microsoft were very good to us during that difficult time. Now that we're on the other side of it, the last thing I got to do here is ship Redfall."
Redfall is one of the most anticipated upcoming Xbox Series X games and upcoming PC games of 2023. Arkane is yet to set a Redfall release date, although the game is expected to launch in the first half of the year.