Since it was revealed back in 2014, everyone has been trying to figure out just what Firewatch is. The purposefully cryptic trailers seemed to indicate that a mystery was afoot in the woods of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. Combine that with the fact that the title comes from a brand new developer in Campo Santo, and you’ll understand why ideas ran wild about just what the game was actually about. It’s rare that even a day before launch, speculation can still be running rampant about a highly-anticipated title. I’m not here to spoil anything, obviously, but I can say that whatever your thoughts on the game are, there is a good chance that you’re wrong.
Set during the glorious year of 1989 (I may be a bit biased on that), Firewatch places gamers into the shoes of Henry. Looking to get away from a serious personal issue, Henry decides to become a fire lookout for the Shoshone National Forest. It’s the type of solitary job that suits a man looking to collect his thoughts and come to terms with where life has taken him. Stationed in the middle of the woods, his only source of communication is a walkie-talkie that he uses to talk to his supervisor, Delilah.
After an exhausting hike just to get to his tower, Henry begins to carry out his duties. This includes putting out smoldering camp fires, collecting beer cans, confiscating fireworks and learning to deal with rambunctious teens. While out on one of his daily treks, though, Henry comes back to his tower, only to find it has been broken into. The strange occurrences continue to pile up, as Henry soon realizes he is being watched by a mysterious figure. Recognizing that something out of the ordinary is going on, Henry and Delilah work to solve the mystery of just who this man is, and why he has such a vested interest in the two.
While the central mystery technically drives the story forward, the real meat of the tale of Firewatch comes from the interactions between Henry and Delilah. A bond between the two is formed almost instantly, partly because of the loneliness of the job, but also because they are both damaged individuals.
Considering The Walking Dead creative leads Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman crafter the story here, I shouldn’t have been surprised by how the interactions between the two are excellent. Their developed relationship is one of the only ones I can think of that actually feels realistic. Everything from small talk about the job to lengthy discussions about what brought each of them to Wyoming feels like real conversation, not typical stilted video game dialogue. The bond between the two is such a pleasure to listen in on that I want to play through the game again just to see how it changes.
As for the actual mystery behind Firewatch, I was a little less enthused about that. The good news is that it certainly didn’t go the way I thought it was going to. I kind of expected the identity of the watching stranger to be cliched, so when their identity is ultimately revealed, I was surprised. However, the reveal didn’t quite pack the emotional punch that I thought it would. It does tie into one of the backstories of the character, yes, but the plot thread it references never felt as fleshed out as it should have. It’s a shame too, because in the days leading up to you uncovering the facts, the game begins to feel almost unbearably tense. All the stress that comes from it, though, feels wasted once the mystery is solved.
If the comparisons to Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture didn’t clue you in, then I should probably talk about how there isn’t much to do in Firewatch besides walk and talk. The most action you get is confronting the few locals you see in the park, rappelling down some small cliffs and putting out the occasional campfire. There’s also hardly any puzzles to be solved, as pretty much everything you need is located in boxes around the park. With talking on the walkie-talkie taking up so much of your time, you could probably get away with calling the game a talking simulator with some light exploration. I personally don’t have a problem with this approach, especially considering how invested I was in the relationship with Henry and Delilah, but if you’re going into this expecting exciting adventure, you might be disappointed.
What I do take issue with, though, is the lackluster performance of the game on the PlayStation 4. No matter what you’re doing, even if it’s just walking around, Firewatch suffers from frequent frame rate issues. Sometimes I’m willing to look past this, you know, if there is plenty of action going on on-screen. But, there are times when there is absolutely nothing happening and the title still stutters and slows. It only gets worse as the game goes on, and by the time you reach the end of the story, you’ll be getting hit with lag every few steps. I’m assuming the PC version probably runs a little better, but I certainly felt like Firewatch could, and should, have been optimized better for the PS4.
Besides Rodkin and Vanaman, one of the bigger names at Campo Santo is that of artist Olly Moss. Moss is well known for gorgeous and vibrant poster designs, and his vision is all over the artistic direction of Firewatch. The dense world of the Shoshone National Forest is rendered with vivid color and detail. Moss’ unique style is even able to make burnt out areas of the forest a pleasure to take in. And once the sun begins to set for the day, the scenic views of the park become breathtaking, with orange hues giving the world a feeling of warmth, despite all of the craziness that is happening. Even the occasional environmental pop-in wasn’t enough to jolt me out of taking enjoyment in the sights of the Wyoming woods.
While music doesn’t play a huge part in the world of Firewatch, the sound design of the title is excellent. The sounds of nature give the game a tranquil air that feels right at home with the constant exploration Henry partakes in. The Chris Remo composed soundtrack comes in at the perfect times, too, and its minimalistic tunes fit the action excellently. What really stands out about the sound of the game, though, are the superb performances turned in by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones, as Henry and Delilah, respectively. The two have excellent rapport with each other, and both are able to infuse their performances with the emotional heft the script needs in order to hit the emotional beats it does.
Considering the fact that I was finished with Firewatch in a little over five hours, I have had plenty of time to ruminate on it. However, I have found it difficult to fully pass judgment on the game. On the one hand, the strong narrative and gorgeous setting have left a stronger impression on me than just about any other recent release. On the other hand, the technical gaffes and slightly disappointing conclusion can’t completely be ignored. At the end of the day, Campo Santo’s wilderness adventure is well worth undertaking. However, while I may have personally taken something away from it, what you’ll get from the experience is ultimately impossible to say.
This review was based off the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
Despite featuring some awful stuttering and skipping, Campo Santo's Firewatch is one of the strongest debut projects in recent memory. The Olly Moss-designed world shines on screen, and the engaging relationship between Henry and Delilah elevates the story, even in the face of a weak closing act.