As soon as it was announced back in September 2014, we were immediately seduced by Firewatch, its fantastic art style and its original theme. A year and a half later, after completing this very immersive narrative adventure, we can say we were right to believe in its potential. We are now going to explain to you why, despite its rather short length (almost 5 hours as far as we're concerned), it is absolutely worth your time. The tricky part is we cannot allow ourselves to include any spoilers in the article, but we love a good challenge. After Unravel, here comes another case of love at first sight on Gamersyde, one we're happy to detail in a full review.
It all starts with an introductory scene mixing text sequences and passages in which the main character Henry is hiking up a trail in the middle of the forest. Through the few sentences written on screen, we are made to undertsand why this man has decided to be a fire lookout in th midst of the Wyoming wilderness. You'll sometimes be asked to make some choices between two sentences, which will mould the past of what seems to be a man scarred by life. Developper Campo Santo manages to immerse the player in a matter of seconds and better yet, to make him feel concerned right from the start, and they don't even need impressive cutscenes to do so. What works really well is that we are also given a short glimpse of the long hike Henry has to inflict upon himself in order to reach the tower of Two Forks, where he'll be staying for the next few months. The beauty of the landscape and the loneliness that weighs upon Henry's shoulders are palpable in this superb introduction, revealing all the doubts and regrets that crush this average man in the forest. Though it would be tempting to reveal more, we won't say a thing as it is undoubtedly part of the whole identification processs to discover the chaaracter's backstory by yourself. Firewatch is a game about nature in its every sense, the wild obviously, but also human nature and the connections between people through the relationship of the two main protagonists, Henry and his boss Delilah.
Firewatch is indeed a story-driven game in which the only human contact you'll have will be a young woman talking to you on your radio. She will be in touch with you from the comfort of her own tower lookout a few miles away from yours and you'll be able to spot her cabin in the distance. Delilah will be Henry's guide and lifeline in a world in which he doesn't know what to do anymore. While he aspired at solitary tranquility in the heart of the western wilderness, he's going to have to converse with a total stranger who will eventually play a key role in his retreat from his past. The dialog system is particularly simple to use and well thought out. The left trigger allows you to use your radio and to choose a topic of conversation while you'll navigate between the possible answers by pressing the right trigger. Observing the environment will give you several possibilities in terms of topics, like reporting a campsite or a raccoon for example. Sometimes, a specific subjet will pop out on the right side of the screen, indicating you can talk about something with Delilah, though you are never obliged to do so. The same goes with the answers you can choose from, saying nothing is always a possibility since you have a certain amount of time to reply. The right trigger will also serve as your main action button, as anything that can be picked up or activated requires the press of RT.
Of course, Firewatch isn't only about connecting to other human beings, it is also an exploration game in which you'll spend most of your time wandering in the wilderness. Given how splendid the environments look, it's a real treat to be able to fully explore the open world once you have acquired all the proper tools (rope, axe, etc.). Campo Santo's first title oozes atmosphere thanks to its beautiful art style, something that was made possible with the flexibility of the Unity engine. Aside from a few frame drops once in a while (which could be due to the streaming of the map), there is absolutely nothing interfering with the experience. Obviously, the size of the map is somehow limited when compared to AAA games, which means you're bound to go through some of the areas several times along the course of the adventure, but thankfully, in no way is this an issue. For starters, it makes sense considering a fire lookout would never have to walk hundreds of miles around his tower. Second of all, the subtle changes in weather or simply time help bring some welcome variety. Last but not least, it emphasizes the connection with Henry even more, as you are going to become more and more familiar with your surroundings, just like him after weeks at Two Forks. Our advice to you would be to take your time, to fully immerse yourself in this world so that you can appreciate every single minute of it.
Into the Wow
With only a map and a compass to find your way, you will have to learn how to navigate between each area. If you have no sense of direction don't worry though, it is impossible to get lost (though we sometimes weren't looking in the right spot). Firewatch is not a survival game and its openness does not mean it is not linear by nature. The story is told through the events which unfold on certain days, implying that once you reach a particular objective, the game either requires you to go back to your cabin or simply takes you to the next segment of the narrative (which can be the day after or several weeks later). Although you'll visit some places on several occasions, the story will take you to new spots on a regular basis, which keeps things fresh from start to finish. The gameplay mechanics remain simple. You'll find things to report in the environment, caches to open which will contain notes or various things, you'll follow the objectives you will have been given by Delilah (which mainly consist in getting somewhere to check on something) and it all works very well. The simple fact that the landscape is always a marvel to look at makes the long walks in the wild so enjoyable that we never felt like running. At some point, you will find a disposable camera (it's 1989!), allowing you to take a limited amount of nice pictures of just about anything you come across. There actually is a plesant surprise regarding them at the end, two if you play on PC, but hush, we are not going to tell.
Ultimately, Firewatch is a beautifully executed narrative and artistic achievement with its one real fault being that it ends perhaps a tad earlier than we would have liked. By utilizing a streamlined, yet rich, exploration mechanic and natural conversation trees, Campo Santo's first game is a memorable trip that will inevitably pull you back in to explore every nook and cranny. Even after unlocking all of the trophies, there is still more to experience following the end credits. This chance to return is an invitation that's difficult to refuse - though we certainly suggest taking your sweet time making your way through the great wooded regions of Wyoming. Knowing that the flower symbolic of this region is the Indian Paintbrush, it almost feels like a tool used to craft this game. Campo Santo has clearly understood the beauty and allure of this region and produced a remarkable work that honors those which monitor and protect our natural heritage – those anonymous people, such as Henry and Delilah.
- On the plus side
- Visually stunning
- Fantastic sound design (sound effects, voice acting, music)
- The story, or rather, stories
- The relationship between Henry and Delilah
- The disposable camera
- The end credits
- The rather pragmatic, yet original idea after the credits (PC only)
- On the down side
- We wanted more
- A few minor frame-rate drops (PC)