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Review: Firewatch

by on February 27, 2016
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For nearly two years, Firewatch had captured the attention of every indie nerd around the world, the same way so many moths are attracted by light-bulbs, with its artistic direction, inspired and supervised by British illustrator Olly Moss. This adventure game in the middle of Wyoming national park has been created by Campo Santo, a young independent studio founded in California by former employees of Telltale Games, Klei Entertainment, and soon joined by defectors from Double Fine, Lucas Arts and 2K Marin (after the closure). Rather quickly placed in the category of a “walking simulator,” even if hiking is in the heart of this game, with highly stylized natural landscape, walking is one of the main activities of the title, while exploring the psychology and nature of the characters as well as your own. The good news is that this spiritual journey is one greatly done, despite annoying technical problems and some small weaknesses in its storytelling.

Firewatch - the VGProfessional Review (7)

Our hero, Henry is the opposite of an athletic video game hero without qualms. Sure he’s may well be good with his hands and never tired during the hikes, but you discover in the mid-textual prologue, his physical appearance through clever choices, but it is above all his backstory and psyche that will be discovered throughout the adventure. It’s a tough one as well, one of a man whom fell in love, but is risking his marriage, because of a neurodegenerative disease his wife is suffering. He became an alcoholic and anxious about lifestyle choices, which got him into prison, and his wife taken away by her family. Henry decides to get away from all this, and opts for a summer job as firewatch, hoping to clear his head, while helping to fight against fire threat in one of the great national parks of the American West. Despite constant radio contact with some Delilah, one responsible for his guidance and training, his stay in the wilds of Wyoming will be more unpredictable than expected. Good for us gamers, because plans that run smoothly are rarely the most interesting. And so, like many games focusing a lot on the quality of their writing, Firewatch is a gentle title, extremely vulnerable to spoilers, so I’ll try my best not to spoil anything essential to the plot.

So welcome to Two Forks watchtower, a landmark refuge where Henry will spend his days, and where the player will be immersed for good in the game and its mechanics. Using an excellent voice acting, and a subtle interface, Firewatch is pretty clear within the few minutes of playing, with a majority of simple actions required to interact with this world and story. All the things that the player can pick up, inspect or keep are clearly marked, while others are there just to make the set more believable. There’s no inventory or resource management system – so don’t expect to merge matches with sticks to build a torch – and all items will automatically be used when the situation demands it. But this simplicity does not mean that you’ll feels safe, but do not expect to have to collect wood for fire, eat, gather plants and roots or even drink from the water sources to survive in the middle of nowhere. All in all, you’ll be guided by Delilah via your walkie-talkie to get to specific areas of the park, with the help of a paper map and compass. If all of this does not sounds complicated, it’s normal: it never is and it is done voluntary by the developers.

Firewatch - the VGProfessional Review (3)

Just as in the memorable first season of The Walking Dead Telltale Games, written by one Campo Santo’s founder, the gameplay is based more on the choices and answers during the dialogues with tangible interactions, even if they contribute to the development of the plot. If physical QTE were ousted from the formula, timed speech decisions are a big thing in the game, including that of remaining silent in times of calm or panic. These dialogues perfectly outline the background and mindset of the two main characters, while leaving room for players to shape the nature of their distance relationship. Too bad the game does not always seem to take into account the radio silence and Henry’s strength to explain what is going on within seconds, especially when it goes directly against an important part of the story. One detail that undermines the notion of critical choices and their impact on the course of the main adventure, is giving more details into the nuances around a main axis in multiple branches. The disappointment is that the same illusion of choice maintained by The Walking Dead (and many other titles before or after it) is still there, and it’s almost too simple of a story arc that can players hungry for more.

Nevertheless, the fact that Firewatch largely addresses the issue of trust in a relationship and moved gradually to build paranoia in the minds of players is not insignificant in the way we will collect various plot elements. Without spoiling too much, this is a game that relies heavily on mental representations, assumptions that may spring from a simple discovery of an item and deduction. It encourages you to imagine the wildest explanations and when reality catches up with you, the house of cards collapses, giving way to a more mundane solution but broadly plausible once we reorganize the details with a clear head. In this sense, the title manages to skilfully confuse players with insignificant clues or tracks that are not necessarily resolved.

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Still, the moment when everything changes on the side of reality comes too fast and is not necessarily well taken, especially on a short experience of three to five hours, depending on your pace and your propensity to find all the little secrets of the game. Despite the small size of the map and the hidden parts that are unlocked depending on the needs of the scenario, it is still possible to quietly enjoy the magnificent scenery and to create memories in this game. I should note that the developers have also integrated a disposable camera, with the option to purchase and get your shots mailed to you via an online store after you finish playing the game on PC. As a photography nerd, that feature is a great trip to memory lane, given the fact that you have what a good ol’ camera would only have as shots, which is limited. No Instagram filters for you young kids!

Between the heat haze in the morning with glowing sunsets, the divine rays through the trees and hypnotic night lights, Firewatch is an eye-feast at every moment. Even with the absence of a day-to-night cycle, dynamic weather and photo-realistic textures, the game is still an artistic achievement to shine from one end to the other of the park we survey, whether you are casually walking or rushing through the forest. Although I haven’t tested it on the PlayStation 4, I’ve heard by some of my colleagues that the console version is a bit weak on the technical side, with some small bugs. There’s a lot of motion blur added on the console, that will give you easily motion sickness, but I’m sure that Campo Santo will get on fixing it.

Firewatch was reviewed using a PC downloadable code purchased by the reviewer. The game is also available on PlayStation 4 via digital release. Firewatch was tested on a PC running Windows 10 Pro, with a 4GB NVIDIA Geforce GTX 960 fitted on a 5th Generation Intel i7 4720HQ 3.2Ghz CPU and topped with 16GB of RAM. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published

What we liked

• A unique art direction
• A human and compelling writing
• My pet turtle: Turt Reynolds
• The atmosphere that switch from calm to chaotic
• A scenery to get lost in
• Delilah's quirkiness

What is not fun

• Marred by couple of technical problems
• Unfinished topics in the story
• A nightmare for victims of motion sickness

Editor Rating
 
Concept
7.0

 
Graphics
8.8

 
Sound
8.0

 
Playability
8.0

 
Entertainment
7.0

 
Replay Value
5.0

Final Score
7.3


Our final verdict
 

The potentially crippling bugs that hurt Firewatch should not overshadow the undeniable achievements of the game. Filled with humane and funny dialogues when necessary, a great setting, Campo Santo has delivered a fun and compelling interactive story that knows how to catch your attention and play with your emotions from the first minutes. And even if the game is not considered long to our modern days, and has some crippling technical weakness on consoles, there is always a little voice in the end that reminds you that this is one beautiful game.

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