Firewatch Review

Since the appearance of Gone Home, walking simulators have crept more and more into the fabric of gaming, focusing on the narrative rather than the gameplay itself.  Firewatch is another attempt at fleshing out this sub-genre.

You play the role of Henry, a newly recruited fire lookout at Shoshone National Forest Park, aiming to get away from the troubles of everyday life by spending the entire summer alone in the woods.

Firewatch comes with a rather unique graphical look, ditching realistic textures for a more artistic style, reminiscent of a painting rather than a photograph.  Its first-person perspective allows its colours to vibrantly come through and aid the game in telling its tale.

The story is told through player-character Henry and his boss Delilah.  As the game is set in the 1980s modern technology is at a premium here.  There’s no webcam, smart phones or Reddit to keep you occupied.  Just you, your walkie-talkie radio, and the woman on the other end of the line.

Henry and Delilah’s relationship keeps the story moving and is the driving force to keep playing.  Things never move too quick and the dialogue between them feels natural, almost like it was recorded in a real-life situation.  They confide in each other in a way that isn’t often explored in video games.  Both Henry and Delilah have experienced the lows of life, and their conversations interpret these in a way that doesn’t feel forced.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Some of the more light-hearted moments between the pair made me smile and appreciate the small-talk the two have.  There’s a real sense of commorardery and we were surprised to learn after we’d finished the game, that voice actors Rich Sommer (Henry) and Cissy Jones (Deliliah) recorded their lines independently of each other.

Firewatch concludes after around four or five hours, unfortunately it falls short of its early promises though.  The opening segments far outweigh anything the latter third of the game offers up, with ill-thought-out misdirection playing a large part in the final section.  We didn’t find that it had the payoff it deserved, but the Firewatch’s road to finality was worth the entry fee.

Because of the setting and lack of a core set of tools, Firewatch feels raw.  But that’s not a bad thing.  Navigating through Shoshone is done using a traditional map and compass, you’ll need to stop at times to get your bearings,  and carefully plot your route to the next objective.  At times we did get a little lost, but that was part of the fun.  It was refreshing to not see a giant arrow above your head or painted line on the floor to direct you where to go.  Instead, Henry draws lines on the map whenever new information is discovered, giving you subtle hints about where you’ve been and where you’re going.

Navigation trickery and dialogue choices are the extent of the gameplay in Firewatch.  Although It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone interested in purchasing it, but you won’t find beasts to slay or villains to vanquish in the traditional sense.  But that’s not a slight against what Campo Santo we’re trying to achieve.

Firewatch’s performance is less than stellar however.  Our PlayStation 4 version continually stuttered and the frame rate dipped to well below 30 at times.  Pop-up was another common occurrence, especially later in the game when the environment is subtly altered in the way it looks, although we won’t spoil that for you here.

Minor misdemeanours can be excused.  But Firewatch’s issues are more than just that, they harm the player experience to a point where it’s hard to recommend a purchase until it’s patched.  Campo Santo have already released a small 330mb patch that delivered “a few small fixes” but for a game of four hours in length, players shouldn’t be left to pay for titles that have been released in this state.

While we haven’t tested the PC version ourselves, the outcome appears to be far more positive.  So if you have the option of both we’d insist you opt for the PC over the PS4.

The way Firewatch presents two people who barely know each other, is an intriguing way of exploring relationships between characters.  Henry and Delilah’s tale was the sole reason I wanted to continue playing.  But it’s the performance issues that may leave the long lasting impression here, as the PS4 version of the game was released in an unacceptable state.

3/5

We tested the PlayStation 4 version after purchasing a retail copy.  Firewatch is available now for PlayStation 4 and PC

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