Firewatch is a first-person adventure mystery game set in the wilderness of Wyoming in the late ‘80s. I mostly avoided all information about Firewatch and went in blind, and Campo Santo has delivered in almost every way, giving me a memorable experience that is let down by only a few issues.
You play as Henry, a middle-aged man, who works at a lookout tower in the wilderness and whose only real human contact is a woman named Delilah, whom he communicates with through a handheld radio. Firewatch begins with you making a few choices in a visual novel-style interface that looks absolutely stunning. These choices lead into the first day at your tower. On a hot summer day, a few teenagers are causing trouble outside and your pleasant conversation with Delilah leads into you going outside to explore.
Firewatch is set in an open area and it is gorgeous. One of the main draws here is the visuals and the art style. It isn’t photorealistic and yet Olly and Jane from Campo Santo have created something that looks so good that almost every screenshot is good enough to use as a wallpaper.
While Firewatch is an open-world game that allows you to explore as you please, I like how there are situations where some areas are locked out until you find the necessary tool to open a gate or clear out some bushes. What I don’t appreciate is how you can jump over some rocks or down some slides and not others. Firewatch has you actually climbing down hills by rappelling with your rope or jumping down steep sections to go to your desired location.
Speaking of navigating, the implementation here is very authentic for its time. There’s no mini-map on the bottom left of the screen. If you want to view the map, press up on the d-pad and it shows your location. You also have a compass at your disposal so you know which direction to go in. If you’re used to the location markers and interface cluttering up your field of view to make navigation easier, you’ll need to get used to proper old-school navigation in Firewatch. While this might seem fun on paper, it does get a tad tiring when you have to backtrack often in some of the objectives.
Delilah is at your side through your radio throughout the game. Her conversations with Henry feel authentic and I appreciate the developers taking into consideration various responses and making dialogue feel real. Conversations between two people who have never seen each other lead to a friendship, and character development takes place over dialogue as the days go by at your tower.
Rich Sommer, of Mad Men fame, and Cissy Jones, of The Walking Dead and Life is Strange fame, have done fantastic jobs with Henry and Delilah respectively in the voice acting department. Their delivery ranges from laid back to urgent depending on the situation but never in-your-face like most video game dialogue. It feels personal. During your interactions with various objects across the world, you report to Delilah and initiate a conversation trail. After a few objectives, I was reporting everything to her by habit just to listen to their back-and-forth banter.
Chris Remo, who did the score for Gone Home, has done a great job setting the tone for various scenes in Firewatch through his use of acoustic guitar and atmospheric music in general. The audio design overall is fantastic. When you are nearing the lake, you can hear rippling water in the distance.
One the things Firewatch does best is not giving away what it is. There are situations where I thought this was a survival-horror exploration game and others where I thought I was in the middle of a good Telltale game. There’s a lot to like about how well the pacing is handled here. It took me little over four hours to complete a single playthrough and this was after missing a lot of dialogue by picking a particular set of responses. I replayed it for more dialogue and it is baffling how well done the conversations are.
My only real complaint with Firewatch is the performance on PlayStation 4. It doesn’t play poorly, but it needs a lot of optimisation. There are areas that are mostly empty where the frame-rate drops considerably, while it holds a steady rate in more busy areas. There are also some visual bugs that occur with throwing objects once in a while. I hope a patch fixes these issues because they sour an otherwise great experience.
Firewatch is a great – albeit tad short – experience and one that will stay with you for a long time if you enjoy character development, good conversations, and great atmosphere. It will surprise you.