GAME REVIEW: Firewatch – A Look Back

Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic, Campo Santo
Release Date (Initial): 02/09/2016
Platforms: PC/Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Reviewed on the Nintendo Switch

Note: Mild Spoilers. If you want to know if the game is worth playing without spoiling anything, skip to the final score!

SYNOPSIS

Firewatch is a unique creature. Described as a mystery adventure game in the guise of a walking simulator, you play as Henry (Rich Sommer), who accepts a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming after his wife develops early-onset dementia. Once you arrive at your watchtower, the game truly begins. Throughout the game, you interact with another lookout, Delilah (Cissy Jones), via walkie-talkie, and take on various tasks. The first task involves investigating fireworks in the distance, set off by some unruly teenage girls who call you a creep. Not much later, you find your windows broken at the watch tower, leading you to believe it was the work of those same teenage girls; however, they eventually are reported missing…and you were the last person known to have been in contact with them. As the game progresses, the plot twists and pulls you into an unsettling mystery–one of the lasts things you would have expected in Firewatch at first glance. By the end, you not only discover someone is listening to every conversation you have with Delilah, but you also stumble upon a boy’s dead body in a cave. Of course, there is a wildfire that spreads to the point where you need to evacuate. All the while, you discover that this boy’s father was the one spying on you the entire time.

ANALYSIS

Firewatch manages to accomplish a lot in a short and seemingly “simple” game. It begins with this facade of a walking simulator where you control conversations between a guilt-ridden Henry with Delilah.

Visual/Audio: The aesthetic in Firewatch is pleasing to the eye. Utilizing a brilliant array of pastel color, the views of Shoshone National Forest were breathtaking. It really pulled me in to the point where I just stood there, directing the analog stick to get a 360 view of the sky, mountains, and trees (I also played on the OLED model of the Nintendo Switch). The aesthetic also embodies the essence of Smokey the Bear and real-life national park signage. It is brilliant to pull in that familiarity while creating a visual of their own. While you do not see many characters, you do see Henry’s hands, and they come off…a little blocky. Judging by photos in the game, Campo Santo seemed to intentionally go for this graphic novel look. While it is personally not my favorite, I feel it works well in Firewatch and certainly does not detract from the game.

The music, although subtle, also was well done. The tempo changes when suspense builds. It sent goosebumps under my skin and delivered the right “feel” at the right moment. I also commend the voice acting. Everything sounded genuine, and I believe it’s one of the strongest aspects of this game.

Gameplay: It is quite simple. You maneuver around a seemingly open world (it is cleverly closed off to point you in the right direction), and you occasionally speak with Delilah. Firewatch allows you to select various responses, and you can chose whether to be cold to your colleague…or flirty. While these dialogue choices ultimately don’t create vast differences in the endings, it is empowering to the player and just flat out fun.

Other aspects in gameplay include a run option and action button where you can attach a rope and rappel down a steel edge or climb up rocks. You also discover items to use such as a camera (the photos you take display in the credits) and an axe (sadly only to be used toward the end in a limited fashion). It’s clear that these actions only aid to progress the story, and is not the central draw to the game. There is also a map and compass you utilize to navigate your way across the forest. While helpful, it certainly came with some frustrations. For example, although minor, I could not run and hold the map at the same time. I will say it does benefit to find all the supply cache boxes so you can trace out trails to aid in your travels.

Of note, I found Firewatch chugged along on the Nintendo Switch. While I thoroughly understand Nintendo consoles generally aren’t as powerful as its Sony and Microsoft counterparts, I was shocked to see drastic frame rate drops.

Narrative: Overall, Firewatch has something special. It was able to elicit a type of unease that I would feel when watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Many times, I felt paranoid and questioning what exactly I was up against. Was it just the pesky teenagers? Am I unknowingly involved in some social experiment?

What I struggled with most was the slow start to the plot as everything ratchets up to a fast and furious ending. While I appreciate an ending I didn’t see coming, the conclusion to the game seemed to fly out from left field. I didn’t know much about Ned Goodwin and his son, Brian. Delilah had mentioned her good relationship with the boy; however, I dismissed it as a conversation piece since Henry confided in her about his wife. The ending itself did not disappoint, but I just wasn’t sure if the entire plot leading up to it made it worthwhile.

FINAL SCORE: 4 Stars

Firewatch is a clever indie game with brilliant voice acting, visuals, and sound. The premise and plot of the game is intriguing, and overall, I do recommend this game. If you have the option, I recommend a platform other than the Nintendo Switch due to performance issues. It may not hit all the points with its disjointed start and ending, I believe it is a solid title worth playing.

Image Source: Firewatch

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