Firewatch Review (PC)
What is Firewatch? I’m not even sure developer Campo Santo can answer that question as the game blurs the line between adventure game, walking simulator and psychological thriller. What the game succeeds at is connecting the player to its characters in unique and interesting ways that makes the story thoughtful and engaging, but the repetitive gameplay and on-the-nose messages the game conveys make for just another stroll through the woods.
Firewatch is the story of Henry and Julia, a happy couple whose worlds are suddenly turned upside down when Julia is diagnosed with dementia and Henry is unable to cope. Distraught and alone after sending Julia to be taken care of by her parents because he was unable to do so himself, Henry takes a summer job at a fire lookout hoping to find some peace. While there, he meets another lookout by the name of Delilah, who communicates with Henry via walkie-talkie. They spend the summer together having interactions only by voice but they soon bloom an intimate and meaningful relationship. Things seem to be going well and Henry’s having a wonderful summer but strange things start occurring around his lookout and suddenly he’s distrustful of everyone, including himself.
Like Gone Home or even PT, Firewatch is immersive because of its environment and setting. The forest around the lookout is beautiful and inviting, and few games display such a gorgeous display of color. I would often just walk around the forest or even stare at sunsets because the greens, oranges, and yellows are so vibrant.
The gameplay works similarly to Gone Home in that you walk around your environment picking up items that may reveal some new lore or add to the mystery of the game but the majority of the story is presented via walkie-talkie and during certain interventions of the dialogue, the player has several options to respond with, ranging from straight-laced to sarcastic. Early on in the game it seems that there may be multiple outcomes for each conversation depending on what you choose, which seems to the case, but ultimately there is only one ending. The choices in dialogue I made as Henry felt like they had some heft behind it and made me contemplate that the game might end differently than how I perceived it to end but when it did end, I just felt empty.
There is a great sense of mystery to the game though. When the strange happenings occur, you aren’t really sure what’s going on and even certain moments make me, the player, distrustful of Delilah or even Henry. My mind was constantly overthinking situations as they were presented to me. “There’s a strange fence out in the middle of this that not Delilah knows about? Maybe this is about aliens.” “Someone’s been in my lookout? Must be a serial killer.” Stuff like that.
The voice acting on the other hand is absolutely spectacular. If not for Henry and Delilah’s wonderful chemistry, this game may just be a write-off, but they absolutely make it worthwhile. Every somber moment of Henry reflecting on the poor choices he’s made regarding Julia’s condition is heartbreaking and so very human and if not for Rich Sommer’s wonderful acting, it may not have been so impactful. Erin Yvette as Delilah is delightful and often plays the foil to Henry’s depressing nature, making wise cracks, but there is a darkness and fear within her voice at several points throughout the game that made you afraid of her and afraid for her.
My main problem is that the game can be repetitive and some mechanics are downright broken. You collect tools as you progress through the game to reach certain areas of the forest but some are rarely used and one is used particularly used too much and the animation for using that tool takes way longer than it should. Adding to the overall illusion of choice and mechanics rarely utilized, the game gives you a disposable camera at one point with only eighteen shots left which I assumed to be the game telling me that maybe something mysterious would need to be revealed to the outside world so I should take pictures conservatively. Sadly, I was. By the end, everything was resolved without me ever having to take a single picture. The map though is the worst. When selecting the map, Henry holds up a paper map to the screen but the icons are incredibly small. There is an option to zoom, which is great, but a new problem arises as there’s only one magnification and when you zoom in to look, it’s entirely too large on the screen and you constantly have to use the analog stick to scroll from one side of the map to the other. Imagine a Starcraft in-game map, but make it a geographical map and that’s what it feels like; slowly scrolling from one side to the other.
The other thing is that the game felt it necessary that towards the end to hammer its message into your skull multiple times. What the game was trying to reveal to the player seemed so on-the-nose and even eye-rolling at some points that it felt superficial because everything that was happening in-game was in direct correlation to Henry’s situation back home.
I really enjoyed Firewatch and I’ll probably play through it again and even try the Free-Roam mode, but I was hoping something more substantial would result from the beautifully written conversations and gorgeous scenery than just another walking simulator.