Firewatch, from first-time developer Campo Santo, is an entirely different beast than its marketing materials would have you think. That’s not to say the various promotions and trailers were misleading — in fact, they were incredibly clever and selective, keeping all the right things hidden. I went in expecting a simple open-world exploration game, and I left with emotionally distressing memories of love, loss and the consequences of running from your problems. Firewatch is a thoroughly successful game in this regard, its numerous engaging story beats frequently tugging at those fragile heartstrings, and luckily, it also offers enough satisfying adventure-platforming to keep you invested across its meagre four-hour runtime.
And this measly couple of hours is Firewatch’s greatest weakness, a severe lack of content meaning that its beautiful open-world is all but wasted in favour of a semi-linear single-player campaign. Think The Last of Us rather than Uncharted franchise — you’re allowed a certain amount of leeway, but the game still wants you to get to this location using this path. There aren’t any side-missions, no true collectables and no reasons to play the game again after completion.
That said, Firewatch isn’t about huge scope, Hollywood-level destruction or, in the case of the former two games, murdering thousands of innocent men. Rather, this is an extremely personal, human tale set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Shoshone National Forest in 1989. You’re given a map, a compass and a couple of ropes and are set free in the wilderness, allowing you to explore dinghy caves, treacherous cliff faces and abandoned camps to your hearts content.
Each of these locations is beautifully rendered in one of the freshest, aesthetically appealing art styles I’ve seen since the original Borderlands in 2009. Textures feature minimum detail, and are painted with broad strokes — not unlike Pixar’s Toy Story — and this means Firewatch is positively drenched in vibrant colour, the environments leaping off the screen like you’ve just opened a pop-up storybook. Lighting is also stellar, the faint rays of sunlight sifting through the overhanging trees and fauna, piercing the shadows on the ground and creating golden patterns that I would frequently observe, stopping dead in my tracks.
Fortunately, you’re given a camera that you can use to document all these beautiful proceedings. A lot of my time with Firewatch was spent exploring each environment and uncovering all the secrets it had to offer, so when I did find something cool, it felt great to be able to whip out my camera and take a snap. It grounded the entire game in a sense of unabashed realism — if you got to wander around the Wyoming wilderness, of course you’d stop and take pictures — and this extends to your two main characters.
Henry — your protagonist — is a rookie fire lookout for the Shoshone National Forest. He’s a man with a troubled past, and as such is ever the pessimist. Delilah, his supervisor, possesses an equal amount of world-weariness, but this spurs her on, and she acts as an optimistic drug for Henry whenever he feels lost or without hope. It’s an incredibly well-articulated relationship, the two characters possessing a bouncy, bubbling sense of humour, and this leads to some particularly memorable moments.
Early on in the game, Henry will enter a cave, screaming into his walkie-talkie and flapping his arms wildly. Delilah, obviously under the impression that Henry is in danger, will yell in reply, utterly concerned for his safety. Of course, Henry is completely fine and the cave is empty, his cries of fear all an elaborate ruse, and Delilah’s frustrated response had me in fits of giggles. The way Henry acts is the way I would act — of course I’d goof around in caves, cracking jokes at every opportunity — and this, like the camera, grounds Firewatch in reality and makes these two characters infinitely more engaging.
Fortunately, opportunities for jokes aren’t in short supply, and in Firewatch, you’re always ready with a quip. Using a walkie-talkie, Henry can communicate with Delilah at pretty much any point in the game, whether it’s to report his findings, ask about the job or indeed, spout a one-liner.
Each conversation contains multiple branching dialogue options, and while these won’t impact the outcome of the game, they never claim to.
They’re purely here to influence the relationship you build with Delilah, and as such, you’re completely in control of the type of character Henry turns out to be. Without spoiling anything, the prologue gives you a couple of important decisions to make regarding Henry’s wife, Julia, and by the time Henry arrives in Shoshone, the two will be separated — but still married. So, when the time comes to interact with Delilah… what will you do? Will you play the faithful husband, or the disloyal playboy? Will you flirt just a little, potentially leading Delilah on, or will you unwaveringly focus on the work at hand, eschewing all thoughts of a romantic relationship?
Luckily, none of this dialogue falls on deaf ears. Firewatch, featuring the voice talents of Mad Men’s Rich Sommers and video-game veteran Cissy Jones, is a sheer audible delight. The two actors absolutely bring their A-game, and I haven’t heard as nuanced a pair of performances since Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson starred in The Last of Us. Henry could easily have come across as a selfish, self-centered jerk who ran from his wife instead of staying to face their problems, but Sommers finds the humanity within him, and by the end of the game, I utterly empathized with the character.
And sadly, this is one of few rewarding endgame moments, with Firewatch not quite managing to equal the sum of its parts when the credits start to roll. That’s all down to the central mystery at the heart of the experience — you’re not alone out there in the forest, and it’s up to Henry to find out exactly what’s going on. Along the way, you’ll uncover clues that hint at a grander scheme at play — government equipment, bugged radios — culminating in a stressful sense of paranoia for yourself and Henry, the character’s psyche deteriorating faster than the bone-dry foliage catches fire.
Yet, when the mystery is resolved and the pieces fall into place, it lands with a whimper, and not the bang I’d hoped for. There’s no grand, earth-shattering revelation, no aliens, no ridiculous conspiracies. Firewatch is realistic to a fault, and where it should probably have gone a bit more balls to the wall, it stays humble, choosing to focus on people and their problems, their trials and their failures. In this regard, the ending absolutely makes sense — it just felt unsatisfying, more like a straightforward adventure novel than a Stephen King mind-bender, the game lacking that truly surprising twist that it led me to expect.
And this neatly summarises Firewatch as a whole. It’s a simple story told well — it doesn’t have a sky-high reach, and it doesn’t try to say anything controversial, or socially relevant. It’s a tale of two people brought together under less than ideal circumstances, and if you go in expecting to enjoy an emotionally engaging, well-acted, beautifully presented couple of hours, you won’t leave feeling disappointed.
In an age of multiplayer shooters with buff, protagonists, Firewatch is a bright, colourful breath of fresh air. It’s an utterly engaging blink-and-you’ll-miss-it experience that you won’t want to blink through, for fear of missing out on a beautiful vista or stunning waterscape. It’s one of the most unique experiences I’ve had on the PS4, and it’s one of the best games of 2016 so far.
- Superb vocal performances
- Gorgeous art direction
- Dialogue options
- Lack of content
- Unsatisfying ending