Firewatch Review: Forest Fire or Matchstick?

Firewatch is the first release from Indie studio Campo Santo, formed by Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, formally of TellTale Games (both were creative leads on The Walking Dead). 2 Years in development between a team of approximately 12 people, we had a play through to see if it lives up to the hype. For those that have played any of the Telltale games (Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones, Jurassic Park to name but a few), it will seem reasonably familiar. In this case Campo Santo enlisted British Artist Olly Moss to design the world and visual style of Firewatch, in this case they definitely got the right guy for the job, the whole landscape verges on awe-inspiring at times I found myself strolling around the map, taking screenshots of the game, and using them as wallpapers (I’m not the only one, I hasten to add).

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The game starts out with a prologue of events, leading up to the year, you enlist for your role. This is played out in 2nd Person, explaining how Henry meets a girl, life choices ensue which go from extreme moments of happiness to ultimately devastation. At this point life, as it does sometimes, takes its toll and that is how you end up as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest.

The foundations have been laid, the next instalment fast forwards you to 1989, this is when the game begins. Now in first person, you start in your lookout tower that has been assigned to you for the summer. After a brief nosey around, you will have first contact with Delilah via your Walkie-Talkie, Delilah is your supervisor and initially starts off by introducing herself, being your supervisor she quickly allocates you tasks, Investigating smoke, checking out faults, missing person checks etc (no spoilers here!). In your first task, you go and investigate a disturbance, stamp your authority in your own unique way and then in typical suspense building fashion, you find consequences as a result of your actions and it spirals from there.

Get on the Walkie-Talkie – That looks like fireworks!

Time advances when you return to your lookout post, for the initial induction period, mundane tasks are given and you complete, one day you stumble across a high fence with some signs that point towards the government trying to hide something, at first its disregarded. You know its there, but it could be irrelevant to the storyline, days pass and you walk by it, obviously your own personal curiosity is spiked but the developers steer you away from it, for now… Campo Santo played this card really really well, a series of events follow the discovery of the fence. It builds up the tension, Conversations over the Walkie-Talkie between Henry and Delilah add to this, the mysterious nature of the fence, and the task of trying to gain entry start to take over as you find yourself running from one end of the map to the other to collect items, to gain access to the area. Conspiracy theories are running around in your mind as you’re trying to get access to the fenced off area, once inside things get a little stranger with strange beeping noises and notes around intercepted radio conversations (early NSA?). This is as much as we’ll go into in terms of the storyline itself, it’s a game that you should explore yourself without spoilers, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience for you.

Henry and Delilah’s relationship is key to this story despite the fact you have never met her. Delilah is sarcastic and unreserved in her use of terrible puns. With Henry escaping to the National Forest to get away from life, Delilah becomes an emotional rock. To quote Adam Rosenburg from Mashable “their performance has a simmering, believable chemistry. It’s easier to lose yourself in their back and forth than it is to get lost in the game’s woods.” Due to the Telltale style dialogue choices every player can have a different experience of these character’s relationship. Some will assume that you will meet Delilah, take her out for drink and probably end up running off with her, while others will see her as a friend to confide in throughout this bizarre experience.

The game is relatively short – I completed it in 3 hours and I wasn’t pushing it, however it was a gripping 3 hours, despite the slow start, the trudging around the game map can be a bit cumbersome, there is no HUD, it takes you back to the ages of map and compass, if like me you can’t navigate to the next town without a Sat Nav, you should brace yourself to get lost, this can be good as the world is gorgeous, but after you’ve seen it once, you probably won’t be staring at it in awe, more than likely firing off some expletives and bringing up the map wondering how it went so wrong.

Also, you can walk freely (although it is restricted in the sense that you can’t stray too far off the main pathways), you will find boxes, books, random items, letters which all add to the atmosphere so it is worth taking the time to read and explore. Some parts of these random items will be useful hints for later on, some are completely irrelevant but they are nice touches, and you will find some deliberate Easter eggs in the game (see the example: Patriots by Donald Anderson – Metal Gear Solid anyone?),

Metal Gear Solid Reference anyone......
Metal Gear Solid Reference anyone……

These will bring a wry smile to your face, as you uncover them. There is another nice surprise for players who purchased the game on steam (not PS4 – yet), at one point you find a disposable camera hidden in a backpack (you cannot miss it, the bag is integral to the story). When wondering around Shoshone taking pictures, if you so wish these can be developed (costing around £10 / $15), It’s a nice touch and developer Campto Santo even went to efforts creating a fake photo development company (Fotodome) which has a brief mention in the game. If you are based in the UK, current time from order to delivery is around a month.

The major downside for me personally was the ending, without going into details. I was left with a feeling of what just happened there? Was that really the end? If I play this again will I get the same ending? (The answer is yes you will if you’re wondering). It was a real anti-climax, you were left with the feeling that any other outcome would have been preferential to what we received.

To conclude, for an independent studio with a small team they have set the bar high with their first efforts. 2 years in development you could argue you would expect more than 3 hours of gameplay, however its priced in the right area. You pay more for a cinema ticket or a football game for entertainment, why should a game be worth less than that? Visually it’s a stunning game, you only need to look at the screenshots to see that it’s been designed and implemented really well. The storyline was engaging, a slow burner that gradually starts to roar out of control. Conspiracy theories are flying around online and it’s unusual in today’s marketplace that a game can draw you and really get you thinking. The ending did leave me a little deflated. I would be interested to know other people’s opinions on the game and see if they agree with the comments. Let me know below or on our Facebook page.

Firewatch was released on PS4 & PC (via Steam) on February 9th.

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