Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed on), Microsoft Windows, Linux, Mac OS
Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Campo Santo and Panic Inc
Release date: Out now
Price: PS4/Steam – £14.99/$19.99
Verdict: Buy it now.
Family Focus: Click here for more information.
I’m just going to admit it – games with a good story are becoming a rarity.
Year after year, the majority of releases have paper thin plots, preferring instead to insist how seeing every single pore on a character’s face is much more important than a coherent storyline. So when I saw Firewatch begin to appear on my Tumblr feed, I figured it could go one of two ways; like Undertale, with the most obnoxious fandom known to man and would thus put me off for life, or it turn out like Until Dawn, which was a masterpiece out of nowhere.
And thank God it was the latter, or I would have wasted £15.
Firewatch is the story of Henry, your American everyman, who takes a summer job in a Wyoming National Park keeping watch over the Shoshone forest and calling in/dealing with any potential risky behaviour. At first, I was confused as to what the gameplay could actually be, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one.
Firewatch is a creature of simplicity; all you can really do is walk, job, study a map, and pick things up, and in truth, that’s all you really need to do. As you stumble around the forest, weird and inexplicable things begin to happen, and the player is left just as powerless as Henry is.
While I feel it fits with the immersion to not have Henry move faster than a jog and only have a paper map, this did wear thin when the game wanted me to jog halfway across the map, all the way back from where I’d just been! One mission had me leave Wapiti Meadow to go find the rangers near Ruby River, only to pick up an axe and walk straight back there. I feel this would have been one of the times that a convenient cut-to-black teleport would have been useful, especially since finding places on the trails is an absolute nightmare. The second to last mission, where you have to find the tracker’s source, nearly made me give up on the game. In theory, it should be easy to follow the trails, but they aren’t all that obvious when you’re wandering around, since they blend into the foliage so well, and if you wander off, you’ll end up going in circles. Half the map is untraversable, since it took tips from Fallout: New Vegas and had mountains in the way of everything, and it’s ultimately a mixture of frustrating trial and error.
There’s also a fair amount of clipping and glitches, too. Though you can usually only see Henry’s hands and feet, they tend to clip through scenery and other objects – it’s pretty noticeable if you’re jumping down from rocks, for example. Similarly, the frame rate is abominable for the PS4. I’d be more forgiving if I was playing on my five-years-outdated PC, but it’s ridiculous that almost every area stutters when I walk through it. I’ve heard whispers about these issues, but weirdly, only for PlayStation, which is a little disconcerting. But all things considered, when a game looks as stunning as Firewatch does, you learn to overlook things like frame rate.
The backdrop of the Shoshone Forest, aggravating as it is to navigate, is truly stunning. No two days look the same, and the sky is a watercolour masterpiece. It truly exhibits the burning beauty of summer, and makes you want to explore the place, even though it’s a weirdly quiet forest, devoid of any animals (or many people, for that matter). It’s the middle of summer, so surely there should be more visitors? But I digress. Firewatch, in its nature, is simplicity. It doesn’t need to be hyper realistic and real; it sets out to show the beauty of isolation and three months of summer, and it does a damn good job.
Some small spoilers ahoy, because I see why everyone was mad about the ending now:
Firewatch had the potential to be an absolutely perfect game. The voice acting was stellar and believable, the relationship between Henry and Delilah was sweet and realistic, and the plot was down to earth and interesting. It had the perfect blend of mundane and creepy, leaving me with a creeping sense of paranoia every time I had to send Henry off to investigate some weird goings on. The trouble is, the tone can’t decide what it wants.
The first two hours or so have really masterful pacing and suspense – it is very clear that something is not right in the Shoshone forest. From the weird shadows, Delilah’s mysterious radio conversation, and nighttime discussions… It had the perfect set up to be a damn good horror story, especially when Henry discovers that clipboard halfway through. The ending was so anticlimactic.
While it’s the simplest answer, it’s not always the best one when it comes to storytelling. Even if you didn’t want to go for big government conspiracies, I still think a supernatural element ala Until Dawn would have really helped this game. I don’t know if it was because I was reading r/nosleep’s excellent I’m a Search and Rescue Officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell at the time, but it really felt that something like this would match the atmosphere of Firewatch perfectly. Everything else just felt like it fell flat, with a simple explanation – you don’t even get to meet Delilah! It’s really not a satisfying payoff.
I had so many suspicions about this game. I thought there was something sinister going on with Delilah, or something strange about Henry. Even if the final shot was a strange figure watching Henry leave, that would have drastically improved it for me.
But let me stress this: Firewatch is by no means a bad game. It’s just not quite that perfect 10/10.
- Stunning environments
- Incredibly well written dialogue
- Suspense was well built
- Abysmal frame rate
- Forest is a pain to navigate
- Ending felt weak
Firewatch contains mentions of alcohol, violence, implied nudity (you never get close enough to see the skinnydippers in the lake) and has sexual themes in the dialogue, though you don’t actually see anything. There’s a decent amount of paranoia and threat, plus you wind up seeing a dead body, so the 16 rating is a pretty apt guide.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased for the purposes of this review.