Reviewed on the PS4
Firewatch is not for everyone, but if you’re looking for an experience that’s light on conventional gameplay and strong with it’s story and voice acting, then this PSN and PC title might be one of the most unique experiences to come out this year.
Before we begin, you need to put all notion about what a video game “is” out of your mind. Because while the end credits might call Firewatch a video game by Campo Santo, you shouldn’t let that affect your judgement of this piece of interactive work.
Firewatch puts you in the hiking boots of Henry, a man from Colorado who takes a job watching for forest fires at the Shoshone National Forrest in the summer of 1988. You control the game through basic movements and dialogue options, mostly during many radio conversations with Henry’s supervisor, Delilah. Considering how much your decisions affect the details, I’m not going to spoil anything and leave the synopsis at that.
Firewatch is first and foremost, a story. Think of it more as a novel or movie that you have agency over. You guide Henry through the forest, discovering items and making decisions. This isn’t a game revolving around twitch controls or clever strategy. In order to enjoy Firewatch, you just need to sit back and get absorbed in it. Henry might have a boring summer job but things take a turn for the odd during his stay.
What could possibly turn people off will be the length and the ending. It’s quite short at 3-4 hours depending on your play style. To me, this felt perfect. It was exactly as long as the story needed to be, without feeling padded or rushed. Over the couple days I played, I would find myself thinking about Firewatch, even when I wasn’t playing it. I had ideas about where the story was going, and while it didn’t come together like I thought, that was ok by me. As in many games with dialogue options, the effect of your decisions comes in through the details, but the developers have a story to tell, which means events will eventually go the way they planned. Firewatch doesn’t leave much in the way of replay value. Given all that, it’s extremely difficult to tell anyone individual how much they will enjoy this game.
What I can tell you is that the game is very pretty. Firewatch has an art style that’s a mix of realism and stylized art. At first glance the vistas look convincing before you notice that everything has an almost water color filter over it. The colors are wonderful to look at, and you are given a camera early on for a reason. Snapping a picture of the sun as it dips behind an outcropping of rocks is a pleasant experience.
You aren’t just someone playing a game in first person. You are Henry. He will stumble or look when he needs to when climbing around. Sometimes you’ll see an arm reach out to grasp something as you pass by. You feel like the character rather then a puppet master. But it’s when you are dropping down from a rock or pulling out your map and compass, you’ll notice that Henry himself, is also very stylized. It can be jarring at first but the art style really works well.
As for the gameplay, I mentioned basic movement controls before, and they are, but the developers have managed to fit a lot into a very minimal game. You’ll spend most of your time with either the radio out, talking with Delilah about many items, locations and story moments, or you will be looking at the map and compass. There is no HUD and no traditional menus. You can pick up items and examine them all in real time, and even keep some for later. But that’s it. Firewatch isn’t a game to get bogged down in, but rather one that just flows.
Here I would normally talk about sound and music but there’s not much to speak of. Music is fairly sparse, only coming in during either major events or downtime. Despite there not being much, it is all very good and unique. The sound effects lend a level of authenticity and are all really well done, but if you want the full effect, I’d suggest a stereo headset or a really quite space.
There is one tech issue we need to discuss. I played on the PlayStation 4, and despite the power of the system, Firewatch had many, many stutters. There wasn’t any one thing that brought it on, but the game would just stop for a second. Often. I hear this is not an issue on the PC. Given the quality of the games we’re seeing on the PS4, there really is no good reason for a technical hiccup of this nature.
Firewatch will never be a game that everyone enjoys, mostly because it’s a video game in a very different sense of the term. A walking simulator, some have called them. This short but sweet experience allows the player to be invested in the characters and how they relate to each other without dedicating a large amount of time. If spending $20 on a good book or movie seems acceptable, then you should give Firewatch a chance. There is very little out there to compare it to, but if you enjoy a game that strives to tell you a story and asks you to be invested in the emotions of its characters, you may find that Firewatch is an experience for you.