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Firewatch (PlayStation 4) artwork

Firewatch (PlayStation 4) review

"Firewatch is more than a jaunt through the woods."

Firewatch is about isolation. Over the course of a brief opening sequence that allows the player to establish the protagonist's background by making a series of dialogue choices, Henry hikes to a firewatch tower located in the midst of a vast Wyoming forest. Those early moments effectively set the game's tone. No matter which options the player chooses, Henry is an immediately flawed lead character with good reason to want to separate himself from his friends and family.

By creating an absolutely beautiful in-game world that features bold art direction, Neophyte development studio Campo Santo provides a fascinating setting in which to be isolated. Much of the world features flat, brightly colored textures that help to accentuate the forest’s flora and fauna. Sunsets paint the sky a stunning combination of reds that contrast nicely with the faraway mountains and trees. The game's developer has so much confidence in its artistic direction that not only does it provide players with an in-game disposable camera, but it will print out the photos and mail them to the user.

Unfortunately, the Playstation 4 version played for the purposes of this review has serious problems maintaining a steady frame rate. The game seems to stutter every few seconds, and smaller fauna or sometimes even entire trees suddenly pop into existence along the horizon. I've also heard about some game-breaking bugs from friends, though I didn't experience anything of that sort first-hand on my playthrough. Even the milder technical issues are still distracting, however, and Campo Santo is actively working to address them. I would recommend waiting for a game-fixing patch before you play through for yourself.

Firewatch is a first-person exploration game, much like Fullbright’s Gone Home and Andrew Crawshaw’s Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture. A lot of the gameplay involves speaking to your boss, Delilah, over a two-way radio and taking care of various tasks throughout the wilderness. The conversations with Delilah are the game's highlight. Henry and Delilah are both excellently voiced by capable actors, and they have great chemistry. Through often sarcastic repartee, Campo Santo reveals a relationship that is entertaining and believable.

The player often has various dialogue options available when speaking to Delilah, and while the choices don't seem to affect the game’s larger story in any significant way, each player’s Henry will likely have a very different relationship with Delilah, based on the choices they make along the way. Delilah is the only character Henry interacts with directly, so the fact that the relationship between the characters is portrayed so sincerely makes the entire experience more appealing.

The larger story will be divisive, I suspect, and most particularly the conclusion. I won't spoil the ending here, but I can imagine many will find it anticlimactic. Campo Santo spends a lot of time building a sense of tension and mystery in the game's second act. That pulls the player’s imagination in a lot of different directions, and the solution to the mystery is significantly more mundane than most of what players might imagine as they are in the throes of the rising action.

I imagine many players will disparage the ending for that reason, but I feel that it drives home one of the game’s most important themes: the effects of isolation on the human psyche. The seclusion Henry and Delilah experience in Firewatch is rarely even possible in today’s world. We have vast and nearly instant access to a wealth of information – we are able to find answers to questions with a quick Google search, we can learn about the people we meet on any number of social media sites, and we can find breaking news from halfway across the world on our Twitter feeds. Henry and Delilah don't have access to any of these luxuries in the Wyoming wilderness, so they're forced to interpret some difficult-to-explain circumstances with limited information.

The player must do the same in Firewatch, which means that as anxiety and distress start building for Henry and Delilah, they also build for the player. This makes it particularly difficult to take a break from the game while you are working your way through its riveting middle third. When I finally found out that the explanation for the building mystery is more banal than the protagonists or I had imagined, I keenly felt the impact that isolation had on them. Much like the characters, I was forced into thinking some pretty wild stuff and making connections between events that in hindsight were not entirely logical.

Thematic discourse would be moot, though, if the game itself weren’t any fun to play. I'm happy to report that the gameplay loop remained intriguing throughout my six-hour playthrough. Most of the player’s actions amount to simple navigation, which is handled well enough with the dual-stick controls. Henry’s actions are primarily managed through contextual button presses, which are clearly explained when necessary and well thought out. Movement is a bit loose, but the game thankfully doesn’t require any feats of dexterity.

Early in the game, Henry receives a handy map and compass. Navigation is made easier in this manner, with the player's location displayed on the map by default, but I recommend that you disable the option. The game world can be effectively navigated with just the map and active attention to one's surroundings, and playing it that way leads to a greater sense of immersion.

Throughout Firewatch, players find helpful navigation tools that allow them to move into previously blocked off areas, but there’s very little in the way of Metroidvania-style secret searching. Instead, players are largely led to new areas as they complete tasks assigned by Delilah, so there’s never much call to wander far from the beaten path. Still, watching as various areas of the map unlock over the course of the game does provide a sense of progression that helpfully accompanies an otherwise entirely narrative experience.

If you have enjoyed any of the previous games to materialize in the recent explosion of first-person exploration games, I recommend giving Firewatch a shot once the technical issues have been resolved. The developers at Campo Santo constructed a beautiful world, populated by two likable but flawed characters. The sense of isolation throughout the experience is palpable, and the strength that comes from reaching out to another person is undeniable.


santellifa's avatar
Freelance review by Francisco Santelli (February 15, 2016)

Francisco Santelli is an avid gamer, overworked high school teacher, and aspiring rockstar. He is often accompanied at the keyboard by his cat, Matches.

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kazriko posted February 15, 2016:

I had framerate stutters on PS4, but they almost always came right when the game started saving. I rarely encountered them when it wasn't saving the game.

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