Firewatch review: Through fire and flames (PS4)

(Image courtesy of Campo Santo)

(This review will have spoilers regarding the prologue and ending of the game.)

Having finally played developer Campo Santo’s first project, Firewatch, I fully regret not playing it sooner.

The player takes control of Henry, a first-time fire lookout stationed in the Shoshone National Forest. Summer of 1989 proves to be particularly challenging for Henry and his fellow lookout Delilah as they deal with unruly teenagers, old mysteries and an all-consuming conspiracy. Firewatch is a first-person mystery adventure game with all the makings of an instant classic.

Most of my thoughts on the experience are great — amazing, even. The soundtrack is practically perfect. The narrative is engrossing and powerful, bolstered by a divisive ending. The Wyoming wilderness has never looked so gorgeous despite a few technical issues. Had the game received the promised bug fixes and a Switch release by the time of this review, I’d have little to say against it.

So let’s get the biggest issue out of the way first: those damn bugs. No, not the kind one would imagine swarming a hazy summer campfire — the technical ones. The largest hindrance to full immersion in the Firewatch experience are the various bugs and quirks which became frustrating on more than one occasion.

Frame-rate drops brought the experience to a standstill multiple times. However, as the game lacks combat and serious platforming, I never felt I was in dire danger when the stuttering occurred. Firewatch is a largely gorgeous representation of Yellowstone and the western wilderness, but it is far from graphically demanding. The PS4 has more than enough power to render the environments and the minimal actions you’re tasked with, so one has to assume it’s a matter of poor optimization on the developer’s end. A Switch port of Firewatch was announced in April of this year, as well as various fixes for already released versions. Here’s hoping these come sooner rather than later.

Another technical annoyance were events not triggering as they should. Progress came to a halt on two separate occasions because in-game actions failed to load. (I even watched a few playthroughs to make sure I hadn’t simply missed them.) Thankfully, Firewatch autosaves often, as well as giving the player the option to save via the pause menu. As the experience was designed to be finished in a single sitting, replaying sections isn’t too tedious. Just be sure autosave is kept on and you shouldn’t have too many issues.

And while not technically a, well, technical issue, a few of the game’s assets are surprisingly ugly. The worst offenders are the fallen trees throughout the Shoshone. The art style is not overly detailed — I generally consider this to be to Firewatch’s credit and part of its charm — but certain things really stuck out. This is likely a personal issue which many other players didn’t have, but it’s worth noting.

This is where my few gripes with the experience end and the near-limitless praise begins.

The soundtrack is undeniably haunting, yet beautifully fitting. “Prologue” is a simple tune that encapsulates what Firewatch is: simple, touched with a tinge of longing and shrouded in a veil of mystery. This is all grounded in a throwback Western experience thanks to the strumming guitar. “Stay in Your Tower and Watch” scratches the alone-on-the-range-but-not-entirely-alone itch one would expect from the establish atmosphere. “Something’s Wrong” raises the hairs on one’s neck, the throbbing, reverberating bass drawing upon one’s underlying anxiety. “Exfiltration” is a laden with synth sounds that established the 80s feel. “Ol’ Shoshone” is the campy, Western tune one expected more of throughout Firewatch, but it sets itself apart from the rest of the soundtrack in the most inspired way. The digital soundtrack, as well as a vinyl record, are available via the Campo Santo store and are highly recommended if one wants to listen at any time (and also support the developer).

The game is divided into different days with specific goals to accomplish. There’s no combat here, just exploration and point-and-click goodness. It’s always clear what one should be doing and where to go which is much appreciated considering how large the Shoshone area is. Sure, it’s not Skyrim, but it never feels as if you’re being quarantined to a small area. Campo Santo patched in free-roam and developer commentary modes which are much appreciated. These build upon the Firewatch experience, establishing the studio as one which has a true passion for game making.

There’s an interactive map which fills out as you explore and find supply caches. These caches aren’t necessary to complete the game, but there’s a running story via letters between previous lookouts which can be found in them. It’s really a bit disappointing the bromance-maybe-turned-romance isn’t explored more and is relegated to the background through said letters.

One will likely seek out the caches more for these letters than map details simply because one can get by with the bare minimum. And if there’s ever any doubt where you should be going, Delilah will check in from time to time to point you in the right direction.

As mentioned, the most divisive aspect of Firewatch is the ending. Following the gruesome discovery in the cave, the conspiracy theory pieced together by Henry and Delilah vaporizes. Suddenly the player realizes they were the one being played. Reality comes crashing in and Firewatch ends on one of the largest cliffhangers in gaming history. Does Henry return to his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife? Will he ever meet Delilah in person? What does it all MEAN?

These are largely unanswered queries, but I’ll take a crack at ‘em: probably, probably not and life is fucking hard. This game epitomizes the phrase “life is a journey not a destination.” Henry, Delilah and Ned have all avoided facing the consequences of their choices. They’ve lived on the outskirts of life, doing their best to put distance between themselves and reality. But one can only run away from their problems for so long before things go up in smoke, literally.

The forest fire flushes these characters out of hiding and into the light. It really doesn’t matter what happens to them next, just that they have to move on. They cannot stay stagnant. This realization isn’t evident at first and takes some time (and a few google searches) to piece together. But as much as we all wanted a good alien conspiracy, Campo Santo understood what we really need. Firewatch serves as a fantastic example of a game with an ambiguous ending that is meant to invoke thought, not confusion.

A moving soundtrack, simple gameplay and a short, but thought-provoking story establish Campo Santo’s first game as an indie masterpiece. The technical finesse is lacking, but with guidance from the developer’s recent acquirer, Valve, future releases are sure to avoid this pitfall. Firewatch is as much an experience as it is a video game and thankfully it’s a positive one.

4.5/5

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