Before we dive into the written depths of Firewatch, did you know that I started a Youtube channel where I do first impression reviews? Well I’m currently doing a Youtube channel where I do first impression reviews and you can check it out here. Here is the first impressions of Firewatch:
Now that’s over with, let’s get to the review.
I admit that I went into Firewatch completely blind, semi-uninterested when the trailers rolled about. “What tale could they even tell stuck in the middle of nowhere?” I’d mumble to myself “maybe a horror game where something is stalking you, but nothing too enjoyable in a narrative sense?”. Even then, I expected better than this.
Firewatch is a first-person exploration game, by new developer Campo Santo, as you shuffle down various paths in a forest and nudge things as the story demands of you. Its likely best if I get something out the way now: the gameplay of “go to X, pick up Y and report Z on your radio” is pretty dull from a gameplay perspective. If you want to have fun and win everything using your interactive prowess you’ll have a bad time; but that’s not why you play Firewatch.
Instead you play it for its story. You are Henry, a man hiding from his troubled life by taking up a firewatch shift. Rather than summer days of hunting the local wildlife, confiscating booze from teenagers (to drink later) and writing a novel on your typewriter that will never see light of day out of shame; you must investigate something malicious going on. People have gone missing, your private quarters have been vandalised and then there’s the bizarre research documents…
If the final sentence in that paragraph sounds alluring, it is done with the subtly and grace of a crime show in its 10th season. They never manage to feed you enough information that you have a mystery you can mull over, rather instead stringing you along with a fish-hook through your lip as vague theories hover around.
Without dipping into spoilers of how this narrative progresses, I admit the only other endings in anything I’ve ever seen I could call so “laughably anti-climatic” would be The Mist (film) and True Detective: Season 2 (TV show). It would be as though Last of Us ended with the scientists extracting the cure from Ellie harmlessly, Joel shaking the lead-scientist’s hand and the twisted duo skipping off into the sunset.
Yet, despite being anti-climatic, it some how leaves a bitter taste of “that’s it?”. Maybe its how it leaves a few unresolved threads dangling uselessly as it ends semi-abruptly, or perhaps its because the entire story is 4 hours and 20 minutes long. This is for a £15 ($20) game. While that was achieved by sticking to the course the story set out, there wasn’t any reason to just explore the environment. Maybe it is just me but £15 for a 4 hour game is way too short, especially for what feels like an empty narrative.
This strikes me as a shame as the characterisation in the story is superb. The conversations between Delilah and your character gives you just enough room to decide how you’re going to talk with her while reminding you that you are Henry rather than Henry is you. The game also sets up Henry’s back story wonderfully. It slowly dips you into a tragic tale that creeps like shadow, haunting the idea of “what does Henry even have to go back to?” as well as making some interesting commentary.
In addition, a couple of choices you make affect small little pieces here and there. One example is I was asked if I wanted to pose like He-Man or a Victoria’s Secret model for a drawing, naturally I went with the second one and found a few minutes later said drawing of a naked bearded man posing like a perfume advert. This is never significant enough to change the course the game is going down, but just enough to make you feel apart of the tale Firewatch wants to tell.
This is all on the backdrop of some really nice aesthetics that allow for the needless shenanigans you’re going to do in an open-world. For instance, on a day when my character said he was going fishing, I accidentally threw the fishing rod into the water. The lake was wonderful to look upon, seeing the faint outline of my rod, knowing it was out of reach as Henry went to the 90s School of Protagonists where he doesn’t know how to swim but knows how to mime an invisible wall. Although, even with the pretty aesthetic, it never manages to show you anything interesting enough to provoke anything but a “huh”.
The final score of Firewatch is a 5.5 out of 10. While it doesn’t do well on a gameplay front, I don’t think that was the purpose. The purpose seems to be the narrative, which beyond fantastic characterisation, feels like an afterthought that didn’t realise how anti-climatic it would seem. I still feel let down that after the strong beginning (that felt like it was building up to an interesting Jacob’s Ladder/ Silent Hill 2-esque narrative) it peters out into a dull mediocre story with an anti-climatic finish.
Sadly there just isn’t enough in Firewatch to recommend it to anyone outside of a severely discounted price. I feel Campo Santo has a lot of potential, but either because they ran out of money or time it feels like a sad flop. I really want to see another title from the developer, as I believe they can do better, I just hope this isn’t as good as it gets.