Platforms: Windows, OS X, Linux, PS4
Publisher/Developer: Panic/Camp Santo
Rating: 4 out of 5
Describe This Game In Three Words: Man, That’s Dark.
Plot: You are Henry, a man who takes a job in the Wyoming wilderness as a lookout for forest fires after fleeing some painful parts of his past. During the course of the game, you investigate various happenings while keeping in touch with your supervisor via walkie-talkie. Eventually you get involved with a couple of possible murder plots as well as a massive fire.
Up, Up: This was one of the games I was most anticipating this year, and it turned out pretty damned well. First off, it’s gorgeous. Making a game that takes place in an open, wooded environment is much harder than it seems as they tend to get needlessly artificial in keeping you within the parts of the game they want you to be in. Firewatch accomplishes it better than most with well-crafted level design, to say nothing of the simply beautiful graphical interpretation of the woods that feels like a really first-rate Pixar film.
Speaking of Pixar…this game is dark. Really, really dark. First-15-minutes-of-Up dark. It comes out of left field a lot of the time, and you find yourself dealing with things like early-onset dementia, PTSD and other big issues. Unlike, say, Life Is Strange, in which things like domestic violence and cyberbullying were treated more like level bosses than thematic elements of the game itself, Firewatch picks a few good topics and sticks with them. The character development between Henry and Delilah, aided by really first-rate voice performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, becomes a solid part of the game, and in a way, you could even say that learning to develop a good relationship is the game itself as much as exploring the forest is.
Down, Down: Considering that navigating the terrain is the other half of the challenge of the game, you’re going to want to turn the location indicator on the map off in the settings menu. Otherwise, the entire navigation aspect just feels like a really boring puzzle sometimes. Trust me, you’ll have more fun in the long run learning how to read a map and compass without the crutch.
The biggest complaint about Firewatch is honestly the ending because, well, there isn’t much of one. The game promises some really grand adventure up to a possible questionable government experiment, but the final payoff just kind of happens. Despite playing a game that's ostensibly about getting to know two characters, I’m not really sure I could tell you that Henry grew any from beginning to end. Maybe a sense of nihilism was the point, and if it was, then bravo, but Firewatch is sort of a depressing affair.
Left, Right, Left, Right: I can only speak for the PlayStation version here, but the use of the shoulder buttons for navigating controls was really well done. Using the walkie-talkie felt very natural. Same for picking up and examining objects. The experience is very tactile, though I don’t know if that translates to keyboard controls.
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I like that Henry, despite being a first-person player character, has a sense of weight behind him. It’s very similar to Garret from the most recent Thief game, and the two share a theme of physical exploration that makes them more than a camera. You actually feel as if they're separate from you, which is a hard thing to do in first-person.
B,A: Firewatch has solved two of gaming's most tired problems in one go. The first is that the walkie-talkie gives Henry a reason to describe the environment in a way that doesn’t feel like the endless talking to themselves that plagues most adventure-game protagonists. Like a lot of the rest of the game, it just felt natural to hear him remark on things in the enviroment.
Firewatch adheres to the old trope of exploring through found objects, but outside something like Gone Home, that’s rarely done well. Think of Bioshock, in which random voice recordings are all scattered in some pretty unlikely places simply because they advance the story when by all logic they should be in a lot fewer locations. Firewatch’s supply cache gets around this because where else would you preserve things in the forest except in the few places designed to do exactly that? If nothing else, this is a game whose designers thought long and hard about things we take for granted in games, and were very good at not doing that.
Start?: Adventure gaming feels like it’s coming into a new beginning after a pretty long, dormant period where little evolved. Firewatch, with its rather grim scenarios and examinations on what it’s like to try to escape from a life you feel spinning out of control, can’t properly be called fun. It is very engaging, though, and while short, it is very solid from beginning right up until its lackluster ending. In an era with buggy builds and jumbled plotlines, Firewatch is both mechanically and narratively a cut above the rest.