PS4 / Rated M
Developer: Campo Santo
What is Firewatch? It’s a question that has been asked multiple times leading up to the game’s release as a joke, but also in seriousness as well. It’s because the game, developed by Campo Santo, was largely a mystery. Details on aspects like the story and gameplay were scarce and hard to find. Demos were shown and previews were written, but there was never a good sense as to what Firewatch was actually about. The game is now upon us and after playing it, I now have the answer to that question. Firewatch is a narrative-driven experience that delivers a memorable experience along with some frustrations.
The game follows the story of Henry, a man on retreat from his issue-ridden life. His wife is struggling with the effects of early onset dementia, which devastates Henry. As an escape, he decides to move out to the wilderness of Wisconsin to work as a fire lookout. He’s alone for the most part, aside from a handheld radio that connects him to fellow fire lookout Delilah, who is serving in another lookout tower farther away. On the first day, Henry is tasked with investigating the usage of illegal fireworks in the forest, which leads him on a walk through the beautiful and lush Wisconsin forest. However, what seems like just an ordinary job turns into a deeper and more involved mystery as you start to run into some strange things. Henry’s normal fire lookout duties are put on the backburner as he and Delilah work to uncover the strange mystery clouding the wilderness.
The game starts off very strong, beginning with a text-based sequence serving up the backstory on Henry and his wife. It’s an emotional wrecking-ball that slaps you pretty hard. The game then throws you into the forest where you are introduced to Delilah as well as your duties. As the game goes on, the story starts to trail off. I was hoping that the story would dive deeper into Henry’s motivation for leaving his problems behind as an act of escapism, but instead, the game goes places that I did not expect. Luckily the ending picks things back up a bit, but the journey to the conclusion was a little weak and aimless. With that being said, the story was still memorable but it could have used some work. It had the potential to be something so much more.
Dialog between Henry and Delilah was witty and generally fantastic. You never meet Delilah in person during the short duration of the game, but I still felt like I knew a lot about her. As you walk around, Henry and Delilah talk about their lives and you start to realize how similar the two actually are. They’re both dealing with their struggles and problems and their relationship starts to grow as the days go by. There’s a bunch of jokes and sarcasm thrown around, but some of the jokes don’t land. However, I found myself laughing more than shaking my head. Some of the best moments include Henry’s confrontation with a pair of skinny-dipping teenagers…because how would you deal with something like that?
The game shines in its environmental storytelling. Roaming around the National Forest was a therapeutic and breathtaking experience. The game’s visual style, designed by artists like Olly Moss, is fantastic and really makes the game stand out. The amount of interaction that the game gives you makes the experience more immersive as well. I found myself getting lost in the world, stumbling upon secret caves and little valleys. The game is short so the map isn’t as big as most open world games, but it felt large.
The downside of having an immersive forest to explore is the chore of navigating the world with a compass and a map. I understand Campo Santo’s decision to exclude an interactive map screen and waypoints, but the actual task of walking around with a map in one hand and a compass in the other made me realize how bad at directions I am. The game’s characters do a good job at telling you what direction your next objectives are, but I still found myself going down the wrong pathways or running into trees. The fact that there is some backtracking doesn’t help the case either.
I had a fun experience with Firewatch. There are a ton of things to like about it. It’s just too bad that things like an in cohesive story and some frustrating mechanics put a blemish on the final product. Despite the frustrations, the game is still worth a look. It’s a short game, taking around three to four hours to complete, so there is no excuse not to give the game a try. I’d also suggest teaching yourself how to read a map before playing Firewatch. You’ll thank yourself later.