“Firewatch” review

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As a Boy Scout, I did a fair amount of hiking and camping. Granted, I never did anything as intense as what Henry in “Firewatch” goes through while spending his summer in the Shoshone National Forest keeping watch for forest fires, but I can almost smell the trees and feel the wind on my face while playing this game. The vibrant colors and beautiful visuals really aid the story in creating a placid environment that slowly shifts with the heat of the story.

The game’s protagonist Henry is using his new job at the national park to escape the dread he feels toward his wife’s worsening condition. While there, he falls into a mystery that makes him question his personal commitments as well as his sanity. With his boss Delilah’s help via a handheld radio, he has to trek through the park and figure out who is watching the fire watchers.

This is hard for me because this is the type of game that I crave. Plot-driven experiences such as “Firewatch” may not be as exciting for some because they can be a little slower or not as action-packed, but  these types of games really immerse me in a story and make me think and feel things in a way that “Call of Duty” or “Far Cry” can’t. That being said, I greatly respect game creators and their right to tell stories the way they want, so I won’t be spoiling the story any more than I already have.

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Your lookout will become very familiar as you trek back and forth during your day to day duties in Shoshone National Park.

I will focus on the gameplay and developer Campo Santo’s effort as a whole in this project. There are some issues with controls and graphical clipping, but those are things that I expect from a company’s first big offering. These minor hiccups hardly hinder the game at all, and I only encountered a bug that blocked my progress once. So, this is a pretty professional product with the usual bugs that we normally see from triple-A titles, which is a good sign for the developers.

The gameplay isn’t terribly complicated. It’s mostly walking, jogging and pressing buttons to interact with objects or speak over the radio. The compass and map mechanic, which is exactly what it sounds like, will remind most players of some real-life skills they may have left to rust with the luxury of mini-maps and waypoint markers in most games. Honestly, it’s a total pleasure to get lost in the park because it’s so dang pretty.

Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones do incredible voice work for Henry and Delilah respectively. Their dynamic is spectacular, and both actors do an excellent job of selling their fear and apprehension at revealing too much of themselves to a one another. “Firewatch” is a game about trust and fear of the unknown, so Henry and Delilah’s dynamic is an extra layer to the mystery.

I know there’s a lot of people out there talking about how the ending is lackluster or disappointing. I can understand why some people are taking issue. I really can. What I want to do now is address Campo Santo as a group and talk about the game:

Hey, folks. First off, I want to say great job. Making a game is hard work, and you all took the time, put in the work and made an impressive product. You still have room to improve, but you haven’t screwed up or done anything any other company hasn’t done in the past. I understand some people aren’t happy with how the game ended. That’s rough, and you’ll always have people who point out things like that. No big deal.

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Conversations with Delilah take place over Henry’s handheld radio, and can be affected by the timing of responses.

I want to have a real moment here, though. It feels to me that you had a plan to make a game, say a five-or-six hour one, and you stuck to that plan. Either that, or you were worried about a deadline and you were unable to put as much time into the game as you wanted to in order to ship it. That being said, if you plan on doing a longer game, a more ambitious one, I think you can land it. You’ve proven that you can make environments well, your art direction is solid and you are able to land some good voice talent. You also managed to make reading a map engaging enough that I wanted to find all the information.

If I’m wrong about what I think happened, feel free to correct me. I’m not trying to call you out here. I just want you to know that you did good work, and you should feel good about it. I look forward to your next game!

“Firewatch” is available on PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac and Linux. If you want to have a story-driven experience with some impressive visuals and engaging voice acting, the game is for you. If you’re looking for something more conventional, this may not be your cup of tea. But hey, new experiences are often times fun. It’s $20, so it won’t break your bank to try it out, but if you’re not sure you’ll enjoy it, take your time and read some reviews. I will only recommend it, just try and avoid spoilers while you’re out shopping for some opinions.