January is typically a light time for new releases and this year is no different, so I’m trying to make a dent in my backlog. First up is Firewatch, a game I was pretty interested in back in early 2016 but never got around to playing. Seeing Firewatch on plenty of top 10 lists gave me the nudge I needed to pick it up. Four hours later it’s clear to see why people love it: fantastic voice acting, great writing, and a beautiful area to explore.
- TL;DR: Supreme voice acting and top tier writing pack a lot into Firewatch’s small package
- Platform: PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
- Developer: Campo Santo
- Time Played: 4:10
- What I Played: The game in its entirety
Campo Santo’s first game puts you in control of Henry, a man just looking to escape some of the sadness that has come into his life. I won’t spoil what that is, but a simple five to ten minute opening section of text choices sets the scene. Henry chooses to become a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest and quickly connects with his supervisor, Delilah, via radio. The game plays out over the course of a summer, leading you through the forest as you uncover the mysteries it holds.
Firewatch is part of the increasingly popular “walking simulator” genre where you basically navigate a character through a mostly pre-defined story with little user input. All of that holds true here but works so well as Henry hikes through the Shoshone. There’s no need for a hand-holding HUD or or glowing line to show you where to go. Instead, you’ll get around using a physical map, compass, and trail markers. My wife and I are into hiking and I really enjoyed just walking around and becoming familiar with the surroundings. By the end of my four hour playthrough, I could almost get around without using the map at all. I had even given my own names to physical landmarks on top of the few Henry drew on his map.
There were more than a few times where I had to stop walking and take in what I was seeing. Firewatch is one hell of a good looking and sounding game. From the warm orange skies at sunset to the dew in a chilly morning, the way the sunlight shines through the trees, and the ambient sound of birds, bugs, and wind, Firewatch does an excellent job of transporting you from your living room to the great outdoors.
While Firewatch’s unique art style and fantastic presentation are definite pluses, the true stars of the show are Henry and Delilah. Major credit to voice actors Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones for giving the two characters, one we only see in a black and white photo and one we never see at all, such depth. Henry is understandably nervous and paranoid in his first few days on the job but Delilah’s calming demeanor eventually wins him over. The two of them develop a deep relationship despite the physical distance and walkie talkies between them. They will joke, like when Delilah questions Henry for contacting her without an emergency to which Henry replies “it’s a tornado!”, and they will fight, like when Henry presses Delilah about her motives after hearing what she says to another lookout while taking another call. When Henry talks to Delilah about his life outside the park, you can both hear and feel the sadness in his voice and the empathy in hers.
Henry’s first job is to go down to Jonesy Lake and figure out who is setting off fireworks. This is where you’ll learn the basics of the game like reporting your findings to Delilah, rappelling down a cliff face, and following the map. It seems like a simple enough job with the answer being a pair of teenage girls having some fun, but believe me when I say that things start to spiral from there. Friendship, laughter, paranoia, fear, love — Firewatch has it all.
One of the more impressive things with Firewatch is how deeply integrated you feel with the game in the short time it takes to complete it. The relationship between Henry and Delilah is one thing, but the relationship between you and the park is another. At first I felt like an outsider poking around in someone else’s house, but by the end I felt like I owned the place. Henry’s penchant for taking notes on blocked paths to revisit later is a great touch that drives this feeling home. Firewatch also does a good job of making you feel like part of a bigger story instead of the entire focus of a smaller one by constantly referencing other areas of the park and lookouts from years past. This isn’t a world built for the sake of this game, but a game taking place in a world with its own history.
There are a good amount of dialogue options that can change how the game plays out, but Firewatch is definitely a one and done game. There aren’t enough sweeping differences to warrant a second playthrough or any collectibles to go after in a 100% run. That’s not to say you won’t want to wander around for a bit and take in the sights which you can do with the unlockable free roam mode.
For all of the good things I have to say about Firewatch, I only have two real negatives. First off is how often textures would pop into place. For a game about immersing you into a character and his surroundings, watching trees and rocks warp into place can really throw you off. The second thing is the ending which I’ll simply say I was a bit let down by. I kept waiting for a big reveal that never came, but I understand why it never did. Thinking about it a bit more, a moment like that may have been too cliche.
Firewatch isn’t a game with a lot of action, combat, multiplayer, or anything like that. It’s a true adventure game as you guide Henry in his hiking and grow his relationship with Delilah. The writing and voice work really carry the game. A couple of technical issues aside, Firewatch gives you a truly beautiful area to explore. I highly recommend doing so.