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If you’ve been following the site for awhile then you know that Campo Santo’s Firewatch has been one of my most-anticipated games. The game dropped on Steam and PlayStation Network yesterday, and having completed it I can safely say that it lives up to the prerelease hype. I’m not going to go deeply into the story details here as that would ruin the experience for those that haven’t played it yet, so you can safely read this review without worrying about spoilers. The video below does contain spoilers though.
Firewatch tells the story of Henry, a man that has suffered a personal tragedy and has chosen to deal with it by accepting a summer job as a fire spotter at an isolated park. Based on the job description, it should be a relaxing, quiet vacation allowing him to reflect on his troubles and hopefully exorcise some of the demons that are plaguing him. Naturally that wouldn’t make for a very interesting video game, and the player quickly discovers that instead of casual nature walks through the forest the Wyoming wilderness offers up only mystery and intrigue. The story reminds me a lot of the strange happenings that occurred on the TV shows LOST and Twin Peaks, and those elements do a fantastic job of driving the narrative forward. Henry mans his firewatch station alone, but he’s kept company via radio by his supervisor Delilah. The dialog between the two characters is well-written and flows beautifully as the player controls where the relationship is going via a handful of dialog choices for each exchange. Both voice actors do an excellent job as their range is tested over the course of the campaign.
The game often feels like a throwback to classical gaming in terms of what it asks of its player. It accomplishes this not by using punishing difficultly like Bloodborne or the Souls games, but by paying tribute to gaming history with how it lets its protagonist traverse the environment. You’re not going to find a big marker in the sky telling you where to go to reach the next objective. There’s a map which is essential to finding your way around the park, but it doesn’t have a highlighted route on it showing you the path. It’s up to you to analyze the map and use it with your compass to decipher the way. The park is full of cliffs and rocks, making for many dead ends that could’ve resulted in frustration, but by structuring the game this way the developer achieves a sense of discovery and exploration that given Henry’s backstory is important for the player to experience along with him. It’s very reminiscent of classic adventure games like Myst and Riven, and just like those games the environments here as so beautifully-rendered that it doesn’t feel like a waste of time when you make a wrong turn and get stuck. The park is relatively small, but by using different filters to create the scenery the developer makes it feel like every day that you wake up you’re seeing everything for the first time.
The park is awash in oversaturated greens, yellows, oranges, and reds, the colors effectively reflecting the passing of time as well as the current state of the park. It’s by no means photorealistic, which wouldn’t have fit the story that Firewatch tells. It looks like a painting that has come to life just so you can walk around in it for a couple hours. You’ll see an occasional bird but there isn’t a ton of life within the park, which exaggerates the sense of isolation that the narrative works so hard to establish. There are plenty of things that Henry can interact with, from insignificant things like pine cones and rocks to objects that are essential to completing the story. It’s just a fun world to exist in, and it’s definitely worth taking the time to explore.
Gamplay-wise, Firewatch is all about searching your environment to achieve the current objective. You won’t find any traditional combat or complicated puzzles that need to be solved here, and that’s a relief. Henry can walk, run, climb, check his map, and use a couple of other devices that he picks up along the way that I won’t spoil here. The game performs adequately, although there was significant drop in frame rate every time the game autosaved which is quite often. Not a deal-breaker by any means, but like any other game that relies on a deep immersion level it does pull you out of the experience when it happens. I played the game at launch so there’s a good chance a patch could fix this problem altogether.
A lot of people are going to be turned off by the game’s relatively short length, the five chapters each take about an hour to complete so this is by no means a long game. And I don't feel like there is much replay value to be found here, one playthrough will get you all the game’s trophies. But you have to look at it like this: do you want a short experience that is excellent from start to finish or a longer game where the good parts are interrupted by long stretches of mediocrity? 2014’s Alien: Isolation was a bloated 20+ hours of filler surrounding a few hours of fun gameplay that was a chore to complete. I enjoyed every second of Firewatch, the game never feels like it’s dragging things out unnecessarily. And at a completely reasonable $20 it’s really nitpicking to complain about the length, especially when the quality is this high.
Firewatch is yet another shorter game developed by a small studio that manages to stand out in a world where the big name game is still king. Along with games like Gone Home, Rocket League, and Life is Strange, Firewatch shows that the “indie” gaming scene is thriving and can provide a nice alternative to redundant triple-A titles. And the gaming industry is better because of it, it’s nice to know that for every Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed game that will inevitably arrive each year there will also be games that are willing to think outside the box and give gamers a much more unique experience. Firewatch is the first must-play game of 2016, and I’m looking forward to what Campo Santo does next.
Check out Henry's first day on the job here. The video DOES contain spoilers though!