Firewatch Review: Burning Tinder

Led by a brilliant voice cast, Firewatch drags the player into the story. But can it keep them involved for long?

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic, Inc.

Platform: Linux, Microsoft Windows, OS X, PlayStation 4 (Version Reviewed)

Release Date: February 9, 2016

Some might bemoan the gradual increase in games without guns, magic, puzzles, gadgets, strategy, or any of the other trappings we’ve come to recognize as video game “Things To Do.” What starts as a simple walk in the woods, however, has its own wizardry far beyond jokes about walking simulators. Firewatch, the tale of a broken man who travels to the Wyoming wilderness to look for fires and get away from his life, is a game largely about relationships and lingering emotions, set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Shoshone National Forest.

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Hello, Two Forks Tower

You are Henry, who after a brief prologue outlining his convoluted reasons for traveling to Shoshone, arrives at Two Forks Tower, the station of his new summer job. Henry is greeted over a walkie-talkie upon arrival by Delilah, his supervisor and counterpart in distant Thorofare Tower, just visible in the distance as a spot of light. Your summer job is to sit in the tower and attempt to prevent fires set by unwise campers, and report those that grow out of control. It’s an uneventful job…for most of the summer.

As the watcher in Two Forks, your job is…well, whatever Delilah says it is. She’ll send you out to stop unruly teenagers from leaving smoldering campfires, and investigate power lines downed by storms. She is always at the other end of the radio, ready with a witty response or assistance as needed when you discover unusual or interesting things in the forest. You’re also equipped with a map and compass. Navigation is difficult at first if you’re not used to maps, but that’s half the fun. Over time, you’ll acquire an axe, climbing ropes, and other gear that will allow you to explore even further…though you’ll find after one playthrough that your corner of the Shoshone ends up feeling disappointingly small.

Cissy Jones and Rich Sommer’s witty banter and emotional delivery is spot-on. I found myself…plaguing Delilah with constant questions, just to hear her and Henry speak.

There’s not a lot of benefit to going off the beaten path beyond some spectacular views, but it is interesting to get Delilah’s perspective on everything; from bear markings, to beer cans, to abandoned clothing. Cissy Jones and Rich Sommer’s witty banter and emotional delivery is spot-on. I found myself (on my initial playthrough) plaguing Delilah with constant questions, just to hear her and Henry speak. The Shoshone National Forest has its own story to tell beyond the one between you and Delilah, but only those who read, investigate, and ask about everything will hear the full tale.

And that’s the basic gist of the game. You wander through the wilderness toward certain objectives, discussing notable landmarks or objects with Delilah along the way…or not. Delilah will radio you for required objectives, but how you respond is your choice. You can be kind, or inquisitive, or witty, or flirty, or silent. You can trust her with the secrets of your past, or not. How you treat Delilah will in turn affect how she treats you, and what of her secrets she will let you in on. And when things start to go downhill as a mysterious presence in the woods begins to spy on you and your unseen supervisor, your connection to one another will be tested.

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Voices in the Wilderness

There’s something simultaneously beautiful and terrifying about wandering the woods in silence. Firewatch only plays a few tracks of music at moments of dramatic tension; mostly, it’s just your footsteps and the birds. As the mystery of the Shoshone grows progressively more eerie, it’s easy to see Firewatch as a sort of horror game. At night, with only a flashlight and the possibility of something sinister watching, you will leave with an unshakeable sense of unease, especially toward the end of the game. Firewatch pulls off the contrasting atmospheres of peaceful, natural calm and isolated terror effectively. You will be doing a lot of walking in silence in Firewatch, but you’ll be spending that time thinking, wondering, and looking over your shoulder.

For all its visual beauty, delightful personal interactions, and emotional woodswalking, Firewatch doesn’t live up to its potential. Without spoiling anything, Firewatch feels like a game that should have gone on longer. The ending is abrupt and disappointing. After only about four hours of playtime (two if you’re good at navigation!), the mystery is wrapped up in a neat package. Meanwhile, the more personal aspects of the story are left hanging. I played through twice, acting dramatically different on the second run, hoping for something more conclusive (or at least noticeably different). Yet I got the same empty ending, despite treating Delilah entirely differently, and handling situations the opposite way I handled them before.

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Despite the short playtime, Firewatch is a game you can take your time with. It’s worth it to simply stop and look around at the stunning environments. You’ll acquire a camera early on, and you can use it to take photos that will reappear in the credits. If you’re playing the Steam version of the game, you can visit an external website to view your pictures, and even order real-life prints for $15 per pressing, to be delivered in 2-4 weeks (shipping is free). While some may consider this a hefty fee for prints of video game screenshots (3/4 the cost of the game!), it’s a nifty addition for involved players.

Aside from the prints, if you are not sold on which platform to play Firewatch on, I’d recommend PC over PS4. The PS4 version suffers from serious stuttering and pop-in when loading in new objects. Though this might be forgivable in a game with other things going on, when literally all I’m doing is walking around and looking at the scenery while the scenery stutters and loads in 20 new trees all at once every fifteen seconds or so, the immersion is destroyed. Furthermore, on three different occasions, the game completely froze up on one of the loading screens that appears between “Days” in Firewatch. I had to restart the game and start over from the last save point.

Editor’s Note: While no loading issues occurred on Steam, even on a supremely capable computer, I encountered numerous obvious texture pop-ins and stutters when loading in radio conversations.

Verdict

Firewatch is a game packed full of potential that didn’t quite deliver. The world is exquisitely beautiful, but there’s not enough of it (and it appears jankity on the PS4). The story is at different times moving, terrifying, hilarious, and relaxing, but it is cut off too quickly with an ending that explains too much of the wrong things. The rewards for curiosity are great, but there aren’t enough of them. Rich Sommer (Mad Men’s Harry Crane) and Cissy Jones are brilliant in their roles as Henry and Delilah–I would’ve loved the story to go on longer, so I could hear more. Everything about Firewatch begs for more than you’re given, and with only a few short, but enthralling hours of gameplay, the ends might not quite justify the narrative means.

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A copy of this game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.