I like a good walking simulator as much as anyone – in fact, I would say that I like them more than most. There are relatively few experiences in gaming that are so focused on drawing the player in with a killer hook or unforgettable narrative. Firewatch is no exception. Instead of being set in a haunted house, abandoned fairground or the waking nightmare of a neglected toddler though, Campo Santo’s effort delivers an altogether wilder, more colourful experience.
The game is played through the eyes of a man named Henry, who, due to an unexpected life event, finds himself seeking solitude as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. Ensconced within his tower, Henry’s only means of contact with the outside world is through a radio, and he has only his supervisor, Delilah, for company. Firewatch is all about relationships, people and the events that affect them. The central themes are largely sad ones with both Henry and Delilah coming across as people that could have had happier lives. However, there is hope as each finds a little happiness in the relationship that forms between them.
Here’s what I liked:
Spark of interest – Firewatch‘s main charm comes in the form of the growing relationship between Henry and Delilah as a wider story unfolds around them. The script and voice acting are absolutely top notch, and whilst Firewatch is by no means especially crude, it features a relatively grown up story that will be of much more interest to older gamers. It’s hard to describe the finer details without getting into spoiler territory, but despite its beautiful, lonely setting, there is plenty going on in Wyoming to keep both Henry and Delilah occupied all summer long.
Burning embers – Although it is ultimately a sad story, Firewatch does offer a kind of addictive, pleasant catharsis. Few of the experiences that Henry and Delilah describe are straightforward, but for each moment of sadness there is a happy memory, a joke or a beautiful sunset to lift the mood. The main focus of the plot is well hidden until later in the game, but the narrative is so powerful that by the time you will have guessed it (and you will) it is nonetheless hugely affecting.
Relight my fire – Walking simulators rarely feature any replay value, aside from the occasional collectible, but Firewatch is an exception. Firstly, there is a sequence of choices at the beginning of the game that you will definitely want to experience in different ways, and from that point on, every conversation has multiple dialogue choices. I wont reveal whether any of these options has a major impact on the game or not, but I can say that I found some satisfaction in exploring them, if only for the pleasure of the script and voice acting.
Here’s what I didn’t like
Cough and splutter – Firewatch looks better than average when Henry isn’t moving, but it fails to live up to the expectation set by the beautiful still images on this page. Even worse is the frame rate, which is far from acceptable. I’m not complaining about occasional drops in frame rate, I’m complaining about constant stuttering and severe lockups that ruin much of the atmosphere that might be achieved by the wild and lonely setting. It’s hard to excuse, considering the graphical feats achieved by other, more ambitious first person games.
Burnt out – Whilst I found Firewatch had an interesting narrative that was worth experiencing twice, I could see how it might be a complete miss for some people. Aside from excellent dialogue and unusually colourful outdoor exploration, Firewatch has little going on that differentiates it from other walking simulators in terms of gameplay mechanics. There is little of interest to collect, and as usual for games of this kind there are no notable alternative routes or things to see that lie far from the beaten path.
Firewatch is one of my favourite walking simulators because of its engaging script and lasting story, but it is by no means the revolutionary, life changing experience that I had built it up to be in my mind. It’s actually more of an ordinary, pedestrian experience, and that is kind of what makes it successful. For those who enjoy walking simulators, it should be a must buy, whilst for anyone else, I probably wouldn’t bother.
Score: Reader’s Choice
Firewatch was developed and published by Campo Santo on Xbox One. It releases on September 21 2016 for $19.99. A copy was provided for review purposes.