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Review: Firewatch

(Image by Campo Santo)

(Image by Campo Santo)

Sometimes for a person to find their right path in life, they need to escape the world around them. In Firewatch each person’s past finally catches up to them when surrounded by nature’s reality.

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic, Inc.

Platforms: PlayStation 4 [reviewed], PC, Mac, Linux

Release Date: February 9, 2016

Current MSRP: $19.99

Firewatch is a first-person exploration game that takes place in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. You play as Henry, a guy in his late 30s who volunteered to be a fire lookout for the summer in the Shoshone National Forest after finding an ad in the newspaper. Henry is running from his past and responsibilities, postponing the important decisions he needs to make in his life.

The story takes place over several days, with the timeline skipping ahead over the course of three months. The game’s background is the real-world Yellowstone fires of 1988, which spread out of control at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The fires burned almost 800,000 acres or 36 percent of the land in one of the largest disasters in the site’s history.

Henry communicates through a portable radio with his supervisor Delilah from her own far away lookout station. Delilah is around Henry’s age and has worked at the park for over 10 years. During the summer the two build a relationship over long conversations, isolation and a common history.

This is Campo Santo’s first game, an independent developer founded in September 2013 and based in San Francisco, California with a team of around a dozen people. It’s also the first game published by Panic, which is primarily a software company based in Portland, Oregon.

As a story-driven game, Campo Santo certainly has the talent to back up a project like Firewatch. Two of the studio’s founders, Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, were the lead directors and designers on Telltale Games’ first season of The Walking Dead (2012), with Vanaman also writing that game.

Nature Tour

During the opening moments you immediately notice how amazing Firewatch looks. The game’s visual art style created by Olly Moss is incredible. It might be of the best you’ll see in a game. Firewatch’s development started off as a drawing by Moss that inspired the studio’s project. The visuals makes the right first impression that will certainly have many players going on their own photography hunt.

Firewatch is played entirely from the first-person perspective. Most of the game involves walking around the park. You’re always taking in the sights of the natural world.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

Firewatch is a game about escapism. It’s fitting then that the game looks so good it makes you want to book a flight to Wyoming and disappear in the wilderness just like Henry. The world feels expansive with its landscape filled with trees and mountains for miles. Jane Ng, who was the lead artist on Double Fine’s The Cave (2013), made this part of Wyoming come to life in Firewatch.

The game’s landscape is beautiful. The colors are so vibrant and relaxing. The radiating sun covers the rich grass. The mountainous carved walls and valleys lead into an ever-expanding tree line. The afternoon skyline paints shadows through the forest. The flowing rivers bend around trees hundreds of years old. It all makes you appreciate nature, which can be forgotten if you live in a congested city.

At the start of Firewatch you make decisions about Henry’s past and moments with his wife Julia over the course of their relationship and marriage. Julia eventually becomes sick and their partnership will never be the same. These are touching, authentic and real-world moments that give Henry’s character a lot of depth and can guide how you interact with Delilah.

Usually there are three conversational choices for Henry on the radio that need to be selected before a time meter runs out. From flirtatious, straight-faced to mean, Henry can interact with Delilah in different ways. You can also ignore her by not replying in time but she’ll continue talking anyway, acting like Henry ventured off into an area with no radio signal.

Firewatch does a fantastic job of building up a mystery from the moment you hike up to Henry’s lookout station. You know something is out there, something big is coming, but you don’t know what.

Watch the first part of Firewatch:

The game is mostly told through radio talk between Henry and Delilah. The primary voice acting is done by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, who play Henry and Delilah. Sommer is an actor known for playing Henry Crane on “Madmen” who also appeared in L.A. Noire as one of the people of interest during an investigation. Jones worked on The Walking Dead (2012) voicing multiple characters like Kat, Kenny’s husband.

Both of them do a memorable job with connecting the characters together right away. Henry and Delilah are given real life with their performances. Their delivery feels so natural and concise. The banter between two people who are essentially strangers talking over radio feels incredibly authentic. Most of the writing is sharp, funny and witty. The two personalities blend strongly together, coming off like people who have known one other for years. Just by hearing Delilah’s voice you can visualize her and the type of person she is. Walking slowly into a valley or through a forest patch with Delilah on the other end are some of the best parts of Firewatch.

Get Lost

Firewatch simulates the hiking experience in a way that’s not really seen in games. Movement through the park is mostly smooth. There are times when climbing up or over walls, rocks and fallen tree limbs is done through automated animations or by using rope to guide Henry through the terrain.

Part of the other gameplay mechanics are the game’s map and compass, which can be brought up on the screen together. If you get lost Henry is always a big red dot on the map. Some of the appeal is going around on your own. There’s more realism and enjoyment steeped in traveling off memory and recognizing landmarks than relying only on the map.

By picking up items you can inspect them more closely, carry them back to Henry’s lookout station or make a mess by throwing them in any direction, like off a cliff. You can talk to Delilah about certain items or landmarks you discover, which will lead to some interesting conversations. There’s no inventory system to store anything though.

There are a few new items the game introduces that build upon previously learned mechanics and expand into new areas. There are supply caches all over filled with notes left between old rangers and useless junk like pine cones and books. You can also update the in-game map from these boxes. The notes add backstory to the park’s recent history and how its employees dealt with their jobs when in a similar position to Henry.

You can also take pictures with an in-game disposable camera. The camera has no real effect on gameplay, which is disappointing because it could have added another cool element to Firewatch. On the PC version these can actually be printed out into real copies and bought from Campo Santo for about $15.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

The soundtrack composed by Chris Remo, who also did the music for Gone Home (2013), fits the game’s environment. It’s mellow, peaceful music that also raises suspense and makes the player feel tension rising at certain times during the game. The music blends phenomenally together with the world of Firewatch. The game’s sound effects also bring you into nature like it was in your own backyard.

There’s not much exploration besides finding some unrelated areas to the story or extra radio conversations. The game is mostly linear, following on a set story path. You can walk off in different directions but there isn’t many meaningful things to do. There are no side missions or any jobs actually related to being a fire lookout. There’s plenty of interesting objects around to inspect that serve no purpose. At times the world that feels so big can leave an emptiness with its lack of activities.

Unfortunately the game’s technical problems can be an annoying distraction. On the PlayStation 4 there’s frequent stuttering and random frame-rate drops. Just slowly walking and looking around causes the game to skip. Other hitches happen with trees and wildlife immediately popping in when moving towards them, taking you out of the element. Normally if these things happen a few times it wouldn’t be that problematic, but they occur so often it’s impossible to ignore.

Most of the core mechanic of Firewatch is just walking around so the performance problems hurt the game. It’s surprising how bad it actually is on the PS4. Some of these problems might be from using the Unity engine, which is known to have its technical issues. A 3GB patch in version 1.02 on PS4 released to fix these problems, which did improve the game’s performance but the issues are still there.

Into the Unknown

The beginning of Firewatch and getting to know Delilah fiercely hooks the player. The middle section of the story that introduces suspense and paranoia through its bigger mysterious plot is tremendous, some of the best that I can recently remember. People tend to get crazy being alone for so long, especially being isolated in nature. The game’s atmosphere becomes so intense. It feels at any moment you will literally die in the middle of the forest. Every time I climbed up some rocks or turned the corner around a batch of trees I thought it would be the end for Henry. The tension becomes nerve-wracking and the paranoia gets dialed to an all-time high.

Some of the game’s plot is a stretch to believe and does come off as too contrived though. Like Gone Home (2013), Firewatch builds around an outlandish element while still doing personal things in the characters’ lives. In Firewatch’s case it’s hard to imagine some of the plot twists were able to happen how they did. Gone Home does this storytelling style much better. There’s definitely a deceptive element to Firewatch. Being in this expansive world surrounded by never-ending nature and unanswered questions, you’re led to believe that by the finale something crazy will take place and be revealed.

Without spoiling anything, I felt the game’s big reveal and ending comes off flat and doesn’t match what the setting was building to. It’s not a satisfying conclusion because it just drifts quietly away without a sense of enough closure. Firewatch is conflicting because while the build-up and main characters are fantastic, the big angles just aren’t seen through strongly enough and overshadow the game’s true strong points.

There are some powerful moments between Henry and Delilah, away from the larger scope of the story. These times are the true highlights of the game, which then goes in a much different direction halfway through Firewatch.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

The game can be finished between 4-6 hours depending on how you take in the world. Length usually isn’t that important compared to what a game does with its time but I wish there was more of Firewatch, especially from adding extra days to the story.

One of the problems is the game’s story skips way ahead without enough growth between Henry’s time as a fire lookout or his relationship with Delilah. You go from playing the first few days on the job extensively to brief moments from the first few weeks right into the third month filled with a conspiracy plot. The relationship between Delilah and Henry starts heavy but then fades into the background as the major storylines are introduced. I had different expectations of Firewatch based on what happened during the game’s beginning. The conversations change completely from funny and flirtatious to more serious and almost entirely focused on the bigger plot. It’s like they both forgot where their relationship was at.

Player choices also don’t have much consequence. Going back on a second playthrough and changing the way I approached Delilah and conversations, the game still ultimately reaches the same outcome. Based on my conversational choices I expected the relationship with Delilah to have more weight on the overall storyline. At times the game feels like it pushes towards certain angles even if Henry’s dialogue wants to go in a different direction.

Despite Firewatch’s shortcomings with its story, the two characters and their voice acting are so strong that they make the several hours with the game quickly pass by. When the game focuses on Henry and Delilah it’s almost in a league of its own. Who is a more broken person, Henry or Delilah?  Both are at their own lookout stations for similar reasons. Are they good or bad people? Do they change from their experiences at the park? Even with Henry choosing to temporarily escape his former life, he’s a great character because of his personal struggles.

Firewatch will be a game that people have many different interpretations of the story and its relationships. Many will absolutely love the adventure, hate the storyline or will simply remember its better moments. It’s a game worth playing to find your own reactions. After letting it settle, I enjoyed Firewatch’s story and feel parts of it do still connect powerfully on a personal level.

Final Thoughts

Firewatch uses a beautiful world to create a personal story about people running away from their hardships and realities about themselves. The game’s plot reveals don’t hold up to the weight the setting establishes but Firewatch is still worth experiencing for its gorgeous visuals, incredible suspense and memorable, emotional moments between two lost people.

Positives:

  • Visual style
  • Beautiful world
  • Henry and Delilah’s conversations
  • Great voice acting
  • Tension building
  • Personal, real-world touches

Negatives:

  • Flat ending
  • Plot stretches
  • Linear path lacking side exploration
  • Technical problems can hurt experience

Firewatch was purchased on the PlayStation 4 for $17.99 for this review. As of this publication, 5/5 Trophies were obtained for 100 percent completion.

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