A Beautiful Mysterious Modern Classic – Firewatch Review (PC/PS4)
*Review based on PC version*
Narrative video games are nothing all that new these days. These types of games offer experiences that others rarely can. It’s a very risky style, the smallest fault can profoundly effect the entire experience. With this in mind, approaching Campo Santo’s Firewatch was a curious affair.
Firewatch wastes no time when it comes to crafting its story. The initial 45 minutes is spent world building, painting the picture for the player to appreciate it. There’s no cold opening that leaves people asking questions, nor is a basic motive made crystal clear. The only thing that is known, is what led protagonist Henry to working as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest.
Character interaction is where Firewatch lives and dies. Henry’s newly found isolation removes him from the general populous. His only form of commutation is a single walkie talkie connected to his supervisor , Delilah. This connection provides the heartbeat to the entire experience. Henry and Delilah talk throughout the entirety of the game, with the player selecting from various replies and questions. Henry’s personality and relationship with Delilah is moulded by the responses the player chooses, keeping them engaged throughout.
The constant chatter between Henry and Delilah could of served as a nuance, but it’s far from it. Within the first 60 seconds of chatting, the dynamic between the two characters feels organic. There’s no sense of two actors reading off a script or any forced unnatural dialogue. Conversations flow freely, playing off one and other like two old friends.
Henry’s day to day activities mostly involve surveying the forest and checking out local reports. Developer Campo Santo has crafted a truly beautiful environment for the player to work in. Each part of the forest has its own soul, resulting in exploration feeling genuinely rewarding. As the story progress, the forest takes on its own identity, becoming a character. Both Henry and the player learn the history of the forest throughout the game, unlocking new paths and short cuts in doing so.
Wandering around the same forest for 4 and half hours should be repetitive and dull, but it’s far from it. The way in which the plot unfolds, hinting towards what could be, rather than what is, creates a hugely compelling story. Delilah and Henry’s chemistry allows every step to feel worth while, enhancing their budding relationship, allowing the player to personally invest.
While in the process of carrying out his goals for the day, Henry will stumble across various items. Each one has its place in the game, even if it’s not necessarily part of the main plot. Shoshone forest is old, with plenty of tales to tell. Delilah is constantly on hand to shed light on various clues and questions Henry may have. Exploring the surrounding stories of Shoshone is both heartbreaking and warming. Learning about past Lookouts provides some of Firewatch’s best moments, creating personal affections towards faceless characters.
Narrative games have a tendency to become too focused on one core concept. Firewatch never suffers from laying things on too thick. For every discovery that hits both the player and Henry hard, there’s a moment of bright eyed joy. This is precisely why Firewatch works so well, it never feels forced. When games try to make emotional and deep connections with their player, they often go all out. In this case, everything feels organic and human. No obtrusive design decision or cheap attempts at drama, just human qualities.
Sound design plays a subtle role that grows in importance as the game progresses. Various plot developments start to pose questions and theories, the sound design supplements this by toying with the player. It all adds together to create atmospheres that perfectly matches to desired tone.
Firewatch represents narrative games at their best. Clocking in at around 4 and half hours, the experience is unmissable. The sheer amount of mystery omitted by the plot is compelling, resulting in a burning desire to uncover the truth. For a game set in such a isolated environment, the themes of relationships and interactions has never been pulled off so effectively. No Lets Play, review or gameplay video can do such a human element justice.
The only flaws to be found are a few bugs and some items no-clipping into the environment. Climbing onto rocks can sometimes result in being stuck in place. Some areas of the forest can lead to frame rate drops for a few seconds. None of these issues are game breaking, or occur that often.
Campo Santo have crafted a truly brilliant piece of work. The design is near perfect for the genre, constantly engaging the player and making their time feel valued. Both Henry and Delilah never feel like characters in a video game, they’re much closer to actual people. Stella voice acting from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones deserves credit.
Firewatch is the complete narrative experience. It’s been a long time since a game has felt so human and natural. The story is captivating and heart breaking in equal measure. There’s no touches of cynicism, no forced attempts to push political or social beliefs. Firewatch handles itself with grace and dignity while producing one of the best video game experiences in years.