Firewatch is, at it’s core, an adventure which takes a player to a place it may not necessarily want to go, deep into the harsh wilderness of Wyoming U.S.A in the late 1980’s. Cut of from the world, in a time when communication wasn’t as free flowing, and forced to deal with a mystery that pervades the woods and a strange disembodied sense of menace that will leave players cold and coming back for more throughout its strong, albeit brief narrative.
Players take on the role of Hank, a man who is running from something in his past and in need of somewhere to escape. This leads him to take a summer job as a park ranger stationed in the fire tower in Two Forks, cut off from everyone he knows in a lonely landscape. Hank’s only contact is with another park ranger miles away called Delilah, a strong willed and forthright woman with a cutting sense of humour and a seemingly big heart who they can only communicate with via radio. Now Hank faces isolation, at times enjoying his beautiful surroundings, all the while a growing sense of dread begins the player as they soon realise he isn’t alone in this natural paradise. This forces Henry into a mystery that will confound and petrify him, bring the gamers along for a ride they wont soon forget.
On it’s face Campo Santo’s debut game falls under the genre of the ‘walking simulator’. A first person experience in a story drive title with little in the way of action. However, Firewatch proves itself in it’s brief run time to be more than just a pretty but shallow walk in the woods. The gameplay manages to remain eclectic and deceptively simple, allowing the player to pick up the basics quickly while stripping them of classic things which you typically seen in modern games. For example, many open world games tend to have a mini map or a larger map which show player objectives or hints and tips. Here however the player has an objective and mostly has to work out how to get there using a compass and a map. It is a small touch bit it did have me, quite literally, lost when I first played the game and challenged me to learn how to orientate myself in my surroundings. Similarly learning new mechanics, such as how to use ropes or an axe help to give the game a rugged edge giving credence to the idea that you are lost and alone and have to rely on your wits. Compared to the silent protagonists in other ‘walking simulators’, such as The Witness or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Henry feels more like a physical entity within that world, climbing, shoving, swearing and jumping through a wild and physical world. These make every day in his world feel all the more real and exciting and propels the player into his story without even pausing to take a breath.
Looking at the design and graphics of this title we have to say we are very impressed. Setting the whole of the game mostly in the woodlands with almost no interaction with any physical people was a gamble. However, the beauty and scope of the game world is truly jaw dropping. Set during a hot summer, the time of day and direction the player takes treats them to stunning vistas and harshly beautiful canyons. All of them coloured in rich yellows, golds and greens that capture almost the full palette of nature’s colours. It is also dealt with in a stylised manner with Henry bearing an almost cartoony aesthetic which both makes him cute, while also making him fun to be with. In short this makes Firewatch a real thing of beauty.
The area the game really shines though is the truly astounding voice work done by Henry and Delilah’s voice actors, Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones. The dialogue they share is refreshingly real and interesting, making it feel all the more believable and immersing us into their world. Sommer for his part is gruff and occasionally awkward as Henry which makes him oddly endearing which Jones comes across like a the fun loving and free-wheeling kind of person you would want to invite to all of your parties. Both of them fully embody their roles, and this makes it all the more believable when they react to the changing situation they find themselves in as they become paranoid and wary about what is out there in the woods. This, backed up with a similarly stellar script and the almost painfully beautiful setting is enthralling and will almost certainly push the player to go that little bit further and push that little bit harder as they power through towards the games ending.
In terms of story I do not want to ruin anything for anyone who hasn’t reached the end yet or has yet to but the game, in which case what are you waiting for. That said the central mystery is terrifically tense, capturing your attention very quickly and slowly pushing the player deep into paranoia. Playing through certain sections I found myself nervously turning around every few minutes, certain that there would be someone right behind me at any moment. This created a powerful sense of unease which was hard to get through, and yet impossible to tear myself away from. The climax, however, did not quite live up to the hype the preceding parts generated and did leave me feeling a bit cheated. That said, on reflection, it did not take away from the emotional punches, or the beautiful characterisations which made the rest of the game so enjoyable. Indeed this only shows just how strong the games mood and overall sense of dread were, as it leaves a player fearful and consumed by their own paranoia and fear.
Another area where we were surprised was in Firewatch’s shocking brevity. In fairness the games great points kept us playing, and yet everything seemed to be wrapped up and finished after only a few hours of play time. We cant help but think for all the good the game did at the beginning, that everything was almost finished up too easily and quickly and could leave a player wondering where to move on to from there. Especially since what I really wanted was more of Henry and Delilah’s back and forth since it was, simply put, just so good.
Looking at everything Firewatch is another brilliant game that only suffers from a couple of drawbacks. That said, if you can look past the bait and switch ending and the short run time, players can look forward to a beautiful trek through a lush and beautiful environment that they can quite literally get lost exploring. All the while listening to some amazing voice work and being absorbed in a whole new and realistic world.
Firewatch is out now on Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows, Mac OSX and Linux