Like a bonfire itself, Firewatch burns brightly and beautifully for many hours until finally fading into a small pile of lukewarm coals. Come for the visuals, stay for the characters, and leave before the story disappoints you.
Firewatch is a narrative driven walk-em-up created by Campo Santo. It follows Henry, a broken man who decides to escape his personal life by taking a job as a fire lookout in remote Wyoming. When he arrives, he strikes up a friendship with his overseer Delilah over his walkie-talkie, a friendship that is tested after he begins to observe a series of bizarre events in his surroundings.
As a narrative-driven game, the story of Firewatch is crucial to its success, and 90% of the time Campo Santo nails it. From the brilliant opening onwards, the plot hooks into your emotions and proceeds to drag you through a very tense and engaging mystery. The isolated setting and lack of any other people nearby really reinforce the paranoia Henry begins to feel as his new environment begins to suffocate him. Tension is so thick in some scenes that I actually struggled to continue I was so on edge.
The real crux and most impressive part of Firewatch is the performances and rapport between the two main leads Henry and Delilah. Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones are incredibly authentic to the point that several moments make you forget they’re actually performing. Considering the entire relationship is over walkie-talkies its really impressive. The script helps elevate this also, as they both bicker and chat like real people which can be a very difficult task to accomplish. The character work alone elevates the story from simply interesting to downright tense. You sympathise with these characters and begin to fear for their safety which ultimately keeps you invested throughout.
The only part of Firewatch that stumbles is the ending. Campo Santo does such an incredible job building up the suspense and mystery interweaved into the plot that by the end it begins to work against them. The game ends on an anticlimax with a twist that is both slightly predictable and doesn’t make perfect sense, which left me with a sense of disappointment as the credits rolled. That’s not to say its outright bad, but the argument could be made that the story never could have delivered on such an incredible set up. Its a shame, and a heavy blow for a narrative driven game.
But back to the positives – on top of the (mostly) excellent story, Firewatch is stunning. For most of the game you have relative freedom to explore your immediate area, and its well worth it. Employing a painterly almost cartoonish art style smartly keeps the terrain minimalist but no less impressive. The lighting and subtle sounds in particular makes this an area well worth exploring. While I do wish the area was a little larger and more open (and I did come across a few invisible walls), its still a gorgeous, authentic and interesting area to explore.
Being a walk-em-up, there’s isn’t a tonne of actual game here. Aside from some interactions and dialogue choices with Delilah, there isn’t much more beyond simply exploring the environment. There isn’t any real motivation to do that (other than how damn pretty it is), but considering the main focus of Firewatch is its story, that’s all the gameplay it needs. That being said, there’s very little in the way of replayability. Regardless of what dialogue choices you make or path you choose, the experience is going to appear almost identical. Compared to to other narrative games such as The Walking Dead (which a few of the developers actually worked on) this is a tad disappointing.
Out of the 6-7 hours Firewatch takes, 5 of them are stunning. A beautiful environment enriched with a compelling plot and authentic characters kept me engaged and screenshotting like a madman. While the story does stumble at the end and there’s little to no replayability, its still a blaze worth playing (or watching) if you have the time.
Casual Gamer: Highly Recommended
Hardcore Gamer: Recommended
Narrative-driven: Highly Recommended