I’m trudging through the wilderness. Some heavy shit has gone down and as a somber musical cue settles in I know that I’m very near to my final moments in the Wyoming wilderness. And then I snag on a rock and can’t move. Quit to desktop. Welp that killed the mood.
Firewatch is the first game from developer Campo Santo who is made up of an exceptionally talented team whose past credits include roles in the first season of TellTale’s The Walking Dead, Mark Of The Ninja, Ori & The Blind Forest, and Gone Home. The game tells the story of Henry, a man who takes a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest in an attempt to gain some respite from some rather unfortunate turns his personal life has taken. Of course by day two Henry quickly discovers that what he had hoped would be a peaceful retreat may actually turn into one of the most stressful summers of his life.
With a few exceptions the majority of the game’s story is told via walkie talkie, specifically a walkie talkie used to communicate with your boss in the neighboring watch tower, Delilah. Let’s start with the good news regarding this mechanic, the voice acting and dialogue are both great. Henry and Delilah both come across as well rounded and likable characters with just enough flaws to keep them interesting. I definitely could have stood to spend more time with both of them.
But despite the quality of the lead characters and the well crafted writing, I don’t think I’ll find myself playing through the game again. You have a number of dialogue options available to you during the game but they’re more there to change the flavor rather than the actual outcome. Some players may find the different paths interesting enough to explore but the major story moments are the same every time.
There’s not a whole lot to do beyond your conversations with Delilah, you can explore the forest for Lookout caches which will sometimes contain tools you need or notes to collect, these will also allow you to mark extra points on your map, a concept I initially found exciting but died out after only finding two or three optional things to uncover. There’s no real collectibles to speak of, for the most part the things you find in the world are very deliberate and integral to the story. I would have liked to see a few more achievements tied around exploring, and maybe a few more notes telling the fascinating story of former lookouts Ron and Dave. As it stands right now, even with a fair bit of exploring and photographing vistas my final playtime clocked in at three and a half hours.
Normally I feel like I’m the one defending brevity in games. I’d much rather experience a tightly scripted four hour title than a randomly generated copy/pasted 40 hour slog fest. And I might have been a defender of Firewatch as well barring the fact that the developers have been really disingenuous when estimating the game’s length. Put simply, this game is not six hours worth of content, in fact I’m not even sure the three and a half I spent were entirely necessary/efficient. So of course I find it a little dishonest when the developers try to pin the game as “five to six hours” long.
I get it, it’s a lot easier to just lie and avoid the shit storm that comes with announcing your twenty dollar game can be finished in three and a half hours. Maybe it’s not a lie and they’ve really convinced themselves that there’s six hours worth of stuff to do but a “five to six hour” average implies that there are people who will spend even more time in the game and while there’s always going to be die-hard fans I find it spectacularly unlikely that a normal person will ever spend anything close to six hours in this game for a single playthrough.
Shoshone National Forest is a sight to behold. Firewatch goes above and beyond in its art direction, a lot of love and attention to detail has been poured into everything all the way down to the fonts used in game. That’s why it was so disappointing that I was dealing with performance issues for the majority of it. I played the game on a GTX 960, a card that should be more than capable of powering through what I was seeing on screen, yet I frequently ran into animation hitches that increased dramatically in number as the game progressed and the environment began to change. It sounds like things are even worse on the PS4 with Campo Santo already making promises to look into better optimization for their next patch. It’s not the worst running game I’ve encountered, but it is enough to hurt your immersion, and when atmosphere is almost the sole aim of your game that’s a bad thing.
While simple hitches were a consistent problem towards the end of the game I did encounter a couple moments that required a full quit to desktop as well. Both of these involved getting snagged on the environment with no way to continue. I also felt like there were a number of weird pathing issues, especially relating to climbing around on rocks and ledges, it’s easy to overshoot the button prompt to climb and I had a lot of awkward moments trying to target climbing gear or a cliff face. Again length comes back to haunt Firewatch. It’s a lot harder to forgive a lack of polish for four hours of content.
I also mysteriously found that Steam’s integrated screenshot functionality didn’t work for whatever reason (hence the generic screenshots in this review). You do find a disposable camera in game that you can take pictures with, and there’s also a really cool feature built in where you can pay for real life prints of the photos you take. I won’t go all conspiracy theorist and say this is why the Steam overlay doesn’t work though, especially because I haven’t seen anyone else reporting this problem.
I won’t spend a long time musing on the game’s story as there isn’t a whole lot of it and just about every detail could be construed as a spoiler. I will comment that like others I found the ending to be a little lackluster, but not something that killed the whole experience. Stellar art direction and smart dialogue aren’t enough to make an unequivocal recommendation here. I might suggest picking Firewatch up after a few patches and Steam sales, but as it stands right now your twenty dollars could be better spent elsewhere.