Platforms: PC(Reviewed), PS4
Developer: Campo Santo
Publishers: Panic and Campo Santo
Firewatch is a linear story driven adventure game centered around Henry, a distraught 30-something-year-old whose ones promising life gradually takes a nosedive as his wife’s mental health began deteriorating at a rapid rate. With her life and to a certain extent his own, falling apart around him before he is more or less forced to part ways with her as she returns to her family outside of the country. An introduction that feels all the more poignant due to how it is presented as a loosely interactive text adventure. Alone and directionless, Henry takes a job at a fire lookout in a national park, where he is left alone in the wilderness for a summer. Or at least that was the plan before his supervisor, a similarly aged woman named Delilah, begins forming a relationship with him.
A relationship that I consider to be the core of what Firewatch is about, with the banter, interactions, and contextual dialog decisions going a long way to establish the personalities, values, history, and overall details of who these two characters are as people, and how they interact with each over over the radio. It is all very genuine, believable, personable, and endearing, with the banter between the two being ordinary enough to sound grounded and believable, and both well portrayed and written enough to keep things engaging.
However, that angle seemingly not being enough to base a narrative around, the story also early on teases that there is something odd or sinister afoot in these woods, with odd figures, talks of past employees, and the general sort of superstition that seems to stem from isolation. Which is all well and good, as it adds tension to the story and allows for the characters to be placed in unique predicaments, while also fitting in line with how the wilderness and isolation are seen to breed superstition. Yet it also serves to cause the player to develop certain expectations as the mystery and conspiracy intensify.
How exactly does the game meet said expectations? Well, in a way that is… pretty underwhelming. With the prevailing mystery being resolved in an uninvolved manner, Henry’s life being about where it was before, and the relationship between him and Delilah seemingly ending, and on a very awkward note at that. It honestly left me confused, wondering if I missed some sort of true ending, but no, instead things just sort of stop there and life presumably moves on, I guess.
Beyond the story, Firewatch is one of those “walking simulators” in the sense that there is no real imposing gameplay challenges of threat in this first person adventure game that instead uses its gameplay for more atmospheric and narrative purposes. Still, it certainly is more involved than traversing down a linear path, with the campgrounds being sufficiently sprawling to be somewhat believable, geographically interesting enough to satiate exploration, and all contained well enough for the player to breed a degree of familiarity with this environment after only a few hours. While also being given a bit of an extra kick by how if the player does not heed the advice of their in-universe map and compass, it is very easy to steer off into the wrong directions and wind up lost in the woods. Which feels more than appropriate for this type of game.
Given the setting, navigation is also varied up with makeshift trails, steep cliffs, and climbable rock faces that are all weirdly tied to a minimal upgrade system. Almost as if the developers felt the title was not sufficiently “game-y” enough. That not being quite enough though, the title also comes with a handful of what could loosely be called side quests and are more accurately described as diversions. Small instances that can be stumbled into, such as an encounter with a raccoon, or the ability to adopt a baby turtle found on an isolated rock. They are little things meant to enhance the experience, but not only are some of them rather difficult to find and limited with regards to quantity, but most of them often felt like they were not worth the effort of making a detour to a certain area of the map just to encounter them, after looking them up in guide.
Visually, the world of Firewatch is filled with detailed foliage that appropriately coats most of the environment, mountains and bodies of rocks that hit the soft spot between striking and believable, and surprisingly detailed lighting and wind effects. It all amounts to a very scenic and pretty game that fills the adventure with impressive locales that often had me pausing to take an environment in before departing, and actively led me to wander throughout the park grounds in hopes of finding something else to momentarily admire. Though, I must admit that near the end, the whole presentation and grandeur of the park grounds did start to wane on me a little, but I think that has more to do with how much the game likes to shower things in orange.
Overall, my thoughts on Firewatch are considerably more tepid than what I anticipated after the game’s very warm reception it had upon its initial release. While the story initially begins very strong, wrapping me in intrigue as to where the characters and overall mystery will go over the ensuing hours, only to fizzle out with a whimper. While I can certainly admire what it is trying to do, and even appreciate some of the gameplay and presentational decisions the developers implemented here, the final act just strikes me as being overly weak by comparison to the introduction of the game, possibly the end result of overambitious ideas meshing with reality, leading to some unfortunate results.