Video Games Review: Firewatch (PC, 2016)

Firewatch is a game that had me intrigued from the moment I laid eyes on it. The first time I heard anything about it was a trailer during Sony’s E3 2015 press conference. It made me laugh, it made me wonder what its deal was and I quietly kept an eye on it over the next six months as Campo Santo put the finishing touches on it.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure title that follows a man named Henry (played by Mad Men‘s Rich Sommer) who takes up a volunteer fire lookout position for summer in Shoshone National Park, Wyoming. The year is 1989 and the US is still reeling after the massive Yellowstone fires the year before.

Newly-minted developer Campo Santo is home to former creative leads from Telltale Games and the design lead on Mark of the Ninja so the fact that Firewatch finds inventive ways to (quite literally) tell its story walking is not so surprising. Henry’s story plays out over the course of a single summer in the park as he wards people away from starting fires, keeps the park clean and learns to hike around without getting himself hurt or eaten by bears. You accomplish this with nothing more than a paper map, a compass and what you can scavenge from secured parks service drop boxes located all over the park. Henry also converses with his supervisor Delilah (Cissy Jones) via 2-way radio while he works. Isolated and with entertainment in short supply, Henry and Delilah embark on the 1989 equivalent of making friends with someone you’ve never met online – they start getting to know each other over the radio. They do this through dialogue prompts which allow you to choose Henry’s responses or update Delilah on his status. As their friendship begins to grow, the two stumble upon a series of strange events that indicate something sinister may be afoot within the park.

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It’s the combination of some very assured writing paired with extremely strong voice performances from Sommer and Jones that keep Firewatch taut and pacey throughout its six-to-seven hour play time. The chemistry between the two leads is fizzy from the jump and it makes a game mostly about hiking to the different picturesque locations in the park feel really lively. Both of the characters are depicted as being older, headed toward middle age, which is kind of refreshing. You don’t see very many older characters appearing in games in a playable capacity, and its even more rare when they’re the leads. It lends Firewatch a different perspective, one the story leverages to great effect.

Firewatch is more focused on story rather than challenging gameplay which may be off-putting those who aren’t interested in the current trend of games that are, to a greater or lesser extent, interactive films. Periodically you’ll find yourself on a path you can’t reach the end of due to blockage that are passable either by securing climbable ropes or removing overgrowth, but the abilities and items required to do so are provided throughout the normal course of play. When a game is as linear as Firewatch is, it’s easy to see the point of those who prefer their gameplay burrito spicy.

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The thing is, I can’t think of a medium in which this story would actually work other than as a game. It’s a story about how you can run from your problems but never outrun them, a patch of narrative territory well-mined for centuries to be sure, but Firewatch has figured out how to present the age-old trope in a way that feels fresh, relevant and, in deference to its late-Eighties setting, rather modern. There’s no combat to speak of because it’s the game’s concepts, its dark, chewy centre, that you’re supposed to grapple with.

The game’s visuals are not too dissimilar to the stylised look Valve went for with Team Fortress 2 though they are rather more detailed. Not quite cel-shaded, Firewatch looks a bit like a Norman Rockwell cartoon come to life. The surprisingly expansive national park is filled with pristine views, dense foliage, deep caves and ravines, rivers, creeks, lakes and more. You’ll be out and about in the park at different times of the day too, which means you’ll get to appreciate it under all sorts of lighting conditions. Radiant, crimson sunsets, misty sunrises, it all looks a million bucks for a game that was built in Unity. You’re given a camera too, so that whenever one of these lovely views presents themselves you can capture the moment for posterity.

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Firewatch is a clever little thing. It’s polished, enjoyable and it feels less like it has something on its mind and more that it has something it wants to get off its chest. As I say, I don’t think Firewatch will be to everyone’s taste but it certainly held me in its thrall for the duration. I’ve completed it twice while preparing for this review, both times in a single sitting. Between this, the ongoing Minecraft: Story Mode and Oxenfree, 2016 has been a very good year indeed for story-driven games.

Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Whip smart; Funny; Engaging performances keep you engaged
Lowlights: People who care about challenging gameplay over a good story should look elsewhere
Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic
Released: February 9, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Windows PC

Reviewed on PC