After just five minutes we had to close down Firewatch because it was just too mentally taxing. The tragic backstory of the main protagonist, Henry, reduced us to traumatised question mark, and while we were emotionally battered and bruised, we were actually incredibly satisfied with our extreme first reaction. We suspected, from the moment we first laid eyes on the game's initial reveal trailer, that Firewatch would be an emotional experience, and the opening proved that correct.
We hadn't felt like this since the ending of The Last of Us.
So, on that melancholic note let's get the technicalities and the analytical lingo out of the way, so you know what the score is. Firewatch is one of those FPXs, as the kids like to call them, which of course refers to First Person Experience. This means that in spite of some light platforming, and a little navigating here and there, Firewatch gives you a goal, a destination, and simply asks you to reach it. Some of you might be worried that, as is the case with many an FPX, this a walking simulator where you don't really do anything, but fear not; Firewatch has one important ace up its sleeve, and that comes in form of your character, Henry, and his relationship to a fellow firewatch Delilah.
You see, Henry has been through a rather tragic period of his life, and because of that he decides to become a park ranger through the summer in the deep forests of Wyoming. He's supposed to be a lookout in the Two Forks tower, and in the next tower sits Delilah. These two characters build a special relationship over the course of the game.
When you, that's to say when Henry, moves around the forest, you can comment on almost everything around you, and that leads to dialogue with Delilah, which can lead to some pretty special conversations between these two deep and well-rounded characters. The dialogue is filled to the brim with different options, and they all slightly alter the way the characters relate to one another, despite the fact that they both are just voices through a radio. Delilah is always with you, and despite the fact that we never see her face, she's more vivid, nuanced and credible than almost any video game character that comes to mind.
You actually grow quite attached to your personal play through of Firewatch, because you constantly get the sensation that it's the little, indifferent conversations and strange observations that really strengthens the connection between the two. Where as Telltale often utilises straightforward, big decisions with simple, graspable consequences, Firewatch is more Until Dawn than The Walking Dead, only it inhabits a more naturalistic field. This is just interaction at its most vulnerable. Every exchange has an impact, but this impact isn't necessarily obvious to the player. It gives the entire narrative structure a depth that is extremely rare for the medium.
Besides interacting with Delilah, you have to navigate this small, open world that your part of the forest represents. You're given a map, a compass and some climbing gear, and from there you're on your own. There are no collectibles as such, no battle system, no puzzles and no real challenge here. It's the exploration of this fantastic relationship which is swept into an overarching mystery that makes the game feel meaty, and result of this focus is that Firewatch appears clearer, purer, than many of its competitors. There are no distractions, just the sheer force of the theatrical elements.
One of Campo Santo's most prominent founders is the artist Olly Moss, whom you might know as the creator of many of the pop art film posters that have been met with overwhelming popularity on the internet, as well as the cover art for Resistance 3. The man is incredibly skilled with colours and motives, and he's drawn Firewatch from the ground up. The result of this is, of course, that Firewatach looks a lot like a big, drawing in motion. Every line looks as if it's been drawn by hand, and the sharp orange light that penetrates the woodland makes Firewatch an incredible visual experience.
And speaking of The Last of Us, and in this case its soundtrack, Firewatch is almost entirely bereft of music, but at a number of key points, the quiet nature of the Wyoming woods is accompanied by some Gustavo Santaolalla inspired acoustic guitar, which doesn't come off as frightening, unnerving or even scary, but simply enhances the feeling of belonging out there in the wild. In addition, the voice acting is phenomenal, and it should be, given the narrative nature of the game, but fortunately it's spot on.
It's starting to look like a sure 10/10 isn't it? A fantastic story with credible characters, simple but well thought out gameplay, beautiful environments and great voice action, what could possibly go wrong? Well, now it seems we must address the elephant in the room, and that's the game's technical performance on PS4, which was the version tested. There are some serious issues. During our play through, which by the way should take you somewhere between 3 and 5 hours, the frame-rate simply couldn't keep up, the textures popped in at out at their leisure, and our progress was corrupted mere five minutes away from the game's conclusion. Now, while Firewatch is very pretty to look at, the game isn't nearly sophisticated enough to excuse the poor technical execution at work here. It's a real shame, because the technical problems don't only ruin the game's beautiful looks, but it's a constant reminder that the game is so close to being a masterpiece, but falls short just at the end.
It shouldn't, however, ruin the fact that Firewatch is one of the great gaming experiences of recent times. It's beautiful, well written and so incredibly personal. It will most likely earn a spot on plenty of Game of the Year lists come December, so in spite of the technical issues, which aren't anywhere to be seen in the PC version, this is certainly one of this year's first must-buy games.