Yes, there’s pretty scenery to gaze at, and, in Firewatch’s case, some rather spectacular sunsets and midnight wildfires to take in with slack-jawed wonder, but that natural beauty usually hides something far more sinister and unnerving than its easy-going inhabitants care to admit.If books and films have taught us anything over the years, it’s that being alone in the great, wide wilderness is often a sure-fire recipe for madness, paranoia and crippling self-doubt.
In fact, it’s your frequent walkie-talkie conversations with Delilah that help keep Henry grounded over the long summer months in Wyoming’s sun-dappled mountains, and Firewatch’s bounty of branching dialogue options provide plenty of scope to broaden your relationship with your intriguingly distant mentor or keep her at arm’s length.For voluntary fire warden Henry, it’s the slow, creeping feeling that he’s being watched, and not just by his friendly, chatty boss Delilah who mans the next watchtower over and gives Henry his daily tasks and assignments.
In a way, you’d expect nothing less from a team that includes two former creative leads from Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, but whereas Telltale’s zombie adventure made you think long and hard about each and every piece of dialogue you uttered, lest it upset one of your close companions or accidentally sent them to their doom, Firewatch’s script never quite makes the same kind of impact over the course of its five hour run time.Both characters are incredibly well-drawn, and their natural, seamless performances are easily one of the game’s greatest highlights; alongside its beautiful vistas and busy, verdant plains and meadows.
For instance, while a handful of choices clearly had an effect on what came later in the game, the vast majority of my decisions barely made any ripples whatsoever, as the story kept trundling on towards its allotted goal regardless of what I said or did. This is real shame, as there were moments when the narrative really seemed to be building toward something quite profound, channelling works like The Shining and Heart of Darkness to probe a deeper, darker truth about Henry and his unravelling mental state – particularly when you know that the only reason Henry’s out there in the first place is to help escape the reality of his wife’s early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, a revelation that comes hard and fast within a few minutes of starting the game.
^ Firewatch’s evocative visuals look to be inspired by the classic See America posters
Yet, as you close in on the game’s final stretch, you begin to realise Firewatch is burning the candle at both ends. The consequences you thought might be coming peter out into nothing, and the embers of the second act’s psychological horror conspiracy are firmly stamped out for a resolution that’s altogether more mundane and disappointing. We’d be loath to spoil any details, but ultimately Firewatch’s central mystery turns out to be just as empty and unfulfilling as its desolate, lonely landscapes.
Likewise, for all its visual splendour, the environment only plays a very minor role in Firewatch, as players are rarely forced to engage with it in any meaningful way beyond reporting the odd landmark to Delilah or commenting on the contents of the supply boxes strewn over your patrol area. There are no puzzles to speak of apart from a few thorny paths that are quickly dispatched once you find your trusty axe, and most of your objectives can be completed by simply walking from A to B, requiring little to no input from the player except occasionally glancing down at their map and compass to make sure they’re heading in the right direction.
Admittedly, the same argument can be made about so-called ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther, but at least these usually have a compelling story to make up for the lack of action. Firewatch, on the other hand, does a pretty good job of keeping its players entertained with its various red herrings, but when it ends up falling so flat at the end of it, it can’t help but undo all its hard work. Moreover, for a game set in a national nature reserve, there’s also precious little wildlife to speak of, reducing the game’s sense of threat and foreboding even further. It’s quite literally a walk in the park.
In the end, Firewatch’s appeal only goes skin-deep. Its stunning veneer and brilliantly realistic dialogue are easily some of the best I’ve seen in its genre, but the anti-climactic ending and undercooked choice system just doesn’t do it justice. It could have been so much more, but Campo Santo doesn’t quite deliver the goods, leaving us with a beautiful, but ultimately empty world that never reaches its full potential.
|Available formats||PC, PS4|
|OS Support||Windows 7 or higher 64-bit|
|Minimum CPU||Intel Core i3 2.0GHz or AMD equivalent|
|Minimum GPU||Nvidia GeForce GTX 450 or higher with 1GB RAM|
|Hard disk space||4GB|
|Price including VAT||£15|