As weird as it sounds as a games writer, I haven’t purchased and played a game so close to it’s release date in quite a while. Maybe it’s because of my backlog of games (I keep buying them faster than I can play them!), or maybe its because it’s been quiet on the release calendar, but either way, I couldn’t stay away from the enticing adventure game that has everyone deep in conversation: Firewatch.
So what is Firewatch? Another walking simulator if you want to break it down to its very foundation. Just like Gone Home or Dear Esther, the whole game is about a narrative unfolding, with the exploration of the place you’re in (in this case, a national park) being only a sub-task to the games narrative itself. Unlike the aforementioned titles, Firewatch thankfully takes the exploratory narrative game one step further, and tricks the player into thinking there’s actual gameplay mechanics throughout the campaign. I say tricks, as throughout the campaign itself you’re given urgency, and don’t think about how much freedom you actually have to explore the great wilderness the developers at Campo Santo provide to you.
For a narrative driven game, right out of the gate Firewatch hits all the expected ques. You have a deep back story, one which takes you through the main protagonists history with his wife, along with the struggles that come about because of her onset alzheimer’s disease. As a consequence of this, Julia is taken back to her parents in Australia, meaning our protagonist (Henry) has a lot on his plate when he finds the firewatching job. Throughout the course of the game, this history will matter little compared to the new relationship blooming in his life; between himself and his new supervisor, Delilah.
You’ll be given tasks to do throughout the lush national park of Shoshone National Forest by Delilah, and it’s whilst you’re going about these tasks that the narrative will unfold more and more. During these tasks you’ll get to know Delilah quite well, with each sarcastic insult she and Henry throws at each other becoming more and more familiar to relationships we all know in real-life; a feature I truly enjoyed and made me smile with the witty charm and attention to detail the writing implores so often. The characters of Henry and Delilah feel real; none of the voice acting feels forced, and throughout the campaign I never once felt like I was being deceived; it’s fantastically made, and something the voice actors should feel hugely proud of for the work they have done.
The world of Shoshone National Forest is a treat for the eyes. The way the trees shimmer in the wind, along with the way the lighting changes throughout the day help to make for one of the most aesthetically pleasing indie games in living memory. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no realism here; Campto Santo isn’t going to be competing with Crytek anytime soon, but the world feels so vibrant and alive despite it’s simple textures and lovely object models that it genuinely feels alive. Its a testament to how grand the world looks that the developers gave players the ability to print of the in-game pictures they take as postcards; proof in itself that Firewatch is a marvel to look at.
It’s a shame then that for all the praise I’ve given to Firewatches aesthetics and narrative, the same couldn’t be said for the gameplay itself. Whilst all the trailers and screenshots make the game out to be an open world, this is only a half-truth. Firewatch is in-fact, a linear corridor driven affair, albeit with some freedom as to how you get to the next objective.For example: You’ll get a call from Delilah to investigate some teens for example, so off you go, drudging through the woods to a point on your map. During this time, you chat with Delilah, and make your way to your objective. Once there, you’ll make a few decisions, and then have to head to another location, which is repeated ad infinitum. There’s no reason to ever really explore the world, as the mechanics simply don’t let you; everything exists for the narrative, meaning should you come across something early, you can’t do anything to it (e.g. I came across a fence early on. There was no way to enter the area beyond the fence until later in the campaign; the same happened again for many other things I found on exploring).
Firewatch feels like an empty shell of what it could have been. Whilst the narrative and wilderness is great, you just can’t help but feel let down by the end of the campaign. There has been talk online of some customers wanting a refund after completing the game, admitting that they enjoyed what they played, but felt that the experience wasn’t worth £15. I tend to agree with these customers. Firewatch could have been so much more; the forest is big enough and beautiful enough that players could have gotten lost in it for days hunting for secrets with a set of gameplay mechanics like using an axe acquired to cut down trees to get to new areas. Unfortunately, with Firewatch’s world merely being eye-candy whilst you learn more about the story, the game left a foul taste in my mouth once finished.
By all means buy Firewatch when it comes down in price and is on sale; the story alone would be a fantastic experience when the game’s on sale. I just cannot in good faith recommend spending £15 on the game, as you too would probably come out with the same bad feeling.
So much potential, so little pay off.