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A vampire enemy outstretches their arms while watching an evil-seeming moon appear above the titular town in Redfall

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With Redfall, Arkane mishandles Stephen King’s legacy — and its own

A story about evil authority, and rebels rising to meet it, falls flat in the open-world shooter

Image: Arkane Austin/Bethesda Softworks

Redfall stands in the towering, Count Orlok-shaped shadow of more than a century of popular vampire fiction — especially, because of its small-town setting, Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and the heavily King-indebted TV series, Midnight Mass. It’s also the most recent game to come from Arkane Studios, a developer whose portfolio includes the Dishonored series, Prey, and Deathloop. It’s a storied lineage to live up to — one whose heights Redfall consistently fails to reach.

In Redfall, players work to take back an island overrun by vampires, driving bullets and stakes through the hearts of bloodthirsty monsters and their human worshipers while trying to uncover how they rose to power in the first place. The game’s narrative is unevenly delivered, presented mostly through brief, stilted, pre-mission cutscenes and bits of in-universe text that can be easily missed while chatting with a co-op partner or avoiding a cultist’s gunfire. Its roots in King’s novel, Arkane’s immersive sim philosophy, and vampire fiction in general are buried beneath layers of distraction, but they do exist. Unfortunately, the signs of that inspiration don’t so much rise dramatically from the ground as wiggle a finger from the dirt.

Devinder, Layla, and Jacob aim their weapons up the stairs of a haunted house, where a vampire enemy lies in wait, in Redfall
Layla, Jacob, Devinder, and Remi play the parts of the archetypal rebels fighting back against a supernatural elite
Image: Arkane Austin/Bethesda Softworks

Like Dishonored, Redfall is about fighting a scrappy kind of revolution, a handful of holdouts to totalitarian rule using their guile to knock out the structures supporting their oppression. As in Salem’s Lot, a small-town setting allows Redfall to create a microcosm of society — American society, in both cases — and position its vampires as a powerful elite whose malignant influence takes hold of a population too naïve or frightened to resist.

In Dishonored — and, to a lesser extent, 2021’s Deathloop — assassins fought back against a fictional status quo through game design that prioritized clever thinking and subterfuge over brute force. (Even the most aggressive Dishonored player has to slink back into the shadows and make plans to outwit a more powerful enemy force from time to time.) Redfall’s heroes are also battling overwhelming odds, but their supernatural powers, ever-growing arsenal of firearms, and the game’s dimwitted enemies position the rebels less as bedraggled freedom fighters than as a Red Dawn-style militia hitting back with nearly equal resources.

Despite this, Redfall clearly aims to evoke the same feeling of underdog comeuppance as games starring a solo assassin overthrowing a fantasy government. Or, to look back at King, a novel featuring a ragtag group of small-town citizens thwarting the homicidal scheme of a powerful vampire.

Corvo/Emily raises their sword to block the attack of an oncoming guard in Dishonored 2, while a second guard aims his pistol over his ally’s shoulder
In Dishonored and Dishonored 2, assassins fought back against a fictional status quo with clever thinking and subterfuge over brute force
Image: Arkane Studios/Bethesda Softworks

As described by director Harvey Smith in an interview with Eurogamer, Arkane’s intent with Redfall was to make literal the parasitic nature of the wealthiest members (and businesses) of society. Like the aristocrats of Dishonored, living in luxury while the lower classes suffer disease and crushing poverty, Redfall’s vampires are twisted mutations. They’re born from the exploitative goals of a Theranos-style biotech start-up and the privileged few who see personal opportunity in its innovations. As one character puts it when describing the game’s vampires: “When they had everything, they wanted more.”

Cults devoted to the vampire’s worship operate as foot soldiers for their new rulers, policing the town of Redfall by shooting at those who, like the player, attempt to resist their masters’ control. The start-up spreads by taking advantage of the individual foibles of key figures in the town, preying on their greed, fear, and selfishness until the avenues for healthcare and addiction treatment have come under their control. The vampires — tall, spindly creatures who physically resembled an insectile, invasive species of predators — target the average person’s desperation to survive the takeover. They do so having already taken advantage of key community figures’ desire for longer life, and the willingness to chase that longevity at the expense of others. In order to achieve their goals, they make victims of hapless, desperately ill patients or trusting family members and friends.

Redfall finds the core of its terrors, then, not simply in the physical horrors of its otherworldly monsters, but in the all-too human evils they manipulate.

A healthy suspicion of authority runs throughout Arkane’s past work, from the perverse spectacle of feasts laid upon gilded tables in Dishonored, to Deathloop’s filthy slums, to the administrative trickery of Prey’s sci-fi horror setting. The same suspicion of authority courses through Salem’s Lot, whose heroes bypass official channels to combat the vampire threat. It’s also apparent in Midnight Mass, in which a respected local church acts as the gateway for a monstrous contagion. Vampire fiction, in general, affords plenty of dramatic opportunities to condemn structures of power.

The player aims their machine gun at a group of floating vampires who have descended on an ally in Redfall
Redfall can’t emulate Arkane’s previous success (and horror media’s expertise) in conveying a sense of pervasive menace
Image: Arkane Austin/Bethesda Softworks

In King’s novel, the vampires are memorably terrifying — a nearly omnipotent threat. In Arkane’s past games, the enemy leaders were often equally dangerous, made to seem enormously powerful through design that saw them sheltered by ranks of intelligent guards and labyrinthine, ultra-secure headquarters. In both cases, those who fought against them had to think and plan carefully. There was an emphasis on stealth gameplay in Arkane’s case, and a description of grassroots insurrection in Salem’s Lot that reinforced just how badly the odds were stacked against those out to topple authority. This isn’t the case in Redfall, and, as a result, its narrative’s intent is undermined. Its vampires are constantly present, only slightly more difficult to dispatch with a shotgun blast than its clumsy human enemies. Horror media, and Arkane’s past games, both showed how to convey a sense of pervasive menace — but the studio was unable to emulate it this time around.

Redfall doesn’t do enough to center its best qualities, putting its plot too far in the background of a dull open-world shooter. But it’s also not a failed deviation from the tenets of either the vampire stories that influenced it or the Arkane games that preceded its release. It’s better to see its flaws as missteps in design — experimentations with a structure that doesn’t serve the strengths of its storytelling — than a complete departure from what worked in its prior games, or what made some of pop culture’s best known vampire fiction endure over time.