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Posted on Feb 26th 2018 at 08:00:00 AM by (Disposed Hero)
Posted under Review, Adventure, story, walking simulator, Campo Santo

My first experience with Firewatch was not a pleasant one.  I initially found the story and gameplay to be rather dull, the dialog felt unrealistic and forced, and navigation felt like a tedious chore.  After spending about an hour with the game, I promptly uninstalled it, declaring that it simply "wasn't for me."  However, after dwelling on it for a while, I decided that maybe I was a little hasty to dismiss the game so quickly.  I went through the trouble of downloading and installing the game again just so I could give it another shot, and I'm really glad I did.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure title and is the first game to be developed by the small California-based studio Campo Santo.  It was released worldwide on February 9, 2016 on PS4 and PC and released in September of the same year on Xbox One and has been met with generally positive critical reception.  Praised for its storyline and characters, Firewatch is often considered among the best of the narrative-heavy first-person adventure game subgenre that has been dubbed the "walking simulator."

Before continuing on, I think it would be beneficial to explain my personal tastes as a gamer and how this relates to my experience with Firewatch.  I am tempted to say that I prefer action-heavy games, but I feel that that would be misleading because I also love strategy games, RPGs, and highly cinematic games like what we've come to expect from a studio such as Quantic Dream.  I'll just say that I tend to avoid games that are labeled as walking simulators, visual novels, and adventure games in general because I feel that the lack of gameplay and reliance on narrative is in direct contrast to what I typically look for and enjoy about games.  I have nothing against these types of games, it's just rare that I find one that I can really sink my teeth into.  However, I knew what I was getting myself into with Firewatch, and I will do my best to judge this game based on what it is rather than what it isn't.  I hope you will consider this an interesting perspective from someone who is more "on the outside looking in" when it comes to this genre.

Set in Wyoming during 1989, the story of Firewatch begins with our main character Henry trekking through the woods to his designated station to begin his new job as a fire lookout for the Shoshone National Forest.  This opening scene is broken up by text-based flashbacks detailing how Henry met his wife Julia, their relationship over the years, and Julia's diagnosis with early-onset dementia.  The game does offer some choices during the flashback sequences that give the player some agency over how Henry's backstory develops, but I found these choices to have little to no effect on the game's overall plot.  Upon arriving at his lookout tower, Henry is greeted by Firewatch's other main character Delilah via radio.

Home sweet home!

The first half of the game is fairly dull, as it mostly consists of Henry becoming acclimated to his new job, completing tasks typical of his post as fire lookout, and talking to Delilah.  However, the story is set up this way by design, as the primary point is to establish the relationship between Henry and Delilah, and any other overarching plot likely would have detracted from this.  Henry and Delilah's relationship is an important aspect of Firewatch's story.  What begins as a professional relationship quickly escalates into something much more personal, as Henry and Delilah learn about each other's past and really get to know one another.  They begin to genuinely care for each other, and, despite never actually seeing the other person, they develop a mutual attraction.  Watching their relationship develop almost felt like I was watching a case study in which two test subjects were placed in isolation and only able to communicate with one another through radio, and it was something that I found interesting to watch unfold.  Personally, I felt like their relationship felt very real and organic, as they struggle to reconcile their newfound feelings with their past lives, particularly Henry with the guilt he has for feeling like he abandoned his wife.

Admittedly, while it is interesting for me to reflect on the evolution of Henry and Delilah's relationship in hindsight, the game's story itself really did not become interesting to me until about halfway through.  There is a certain plot twist that I won't spoil here that serves to give the game a much needed sense of mystery and intrigue.  It had been a bit of a struggle for me to work my way through the game, but once I reached this point, my interest was piqued and I had a hard time putting the game down.  Strange things start happening to our main protagonist, and it will leave you guessing as to the cause of these strange occurrences.  What looks to be a conspiracy in the making ends up being resolved in an unexpected way, much to the disappointment of many players.  Although the ending has been a source of criticism for Firewatch, I personally thought it was fine and was satisfied with the game's story overall.

Gameplay in Firewatch is minimal and is mostly relegated to picking up objects and interacting with various things in the environment.  Most of these objects can either be dropped on the ground or stored in Henry's backpack, but aside from a handful of key items, these serve no real purpose.  There are many times in the game when you have the option of calling Delilah so our two main characters can discuss certain items and areas, and these mainly serve to give you just a bit more insight into their personalities.  Navigating the forest is also a gameplay element in its own right.  There is no HUD, built-in radar, or anything of that nature in Firewatch, so navigation must be done the old-fashioned way, with Henry being able to produce a map and compass to help him reach his destination.  I found this to be awkward and cumbersome at first, but once I got used to navigating the forest in this way, I found it to be an endearing aspect of the game.

You'll be referencing your map often.

There's not much to say about the presentation of the game.  Graphically, the designers of Firewatch opted for a stylized art style, which was probably a good choice considering the size of the team and budget of the game.  The soundtrack is extremely minimal, with music used in various spots to punctuate key events in the game, but there is no background music most of the time.  I think this works in the game's favor, however, as an overuse of music likely would have diminished the feeling that you're in an isolated forest environment, and it probably would have also been a distraction from the dialog.  There were only a few characters in the game, so there weren't many voice actors, but all of the voice acting was well done.  There are some minor technical issues such as some stuttering or slowdown in places (at least on PS4), but this is likely the compromise that was made in order to keep the entire area of the game one cohesive zone without being broken up by loading screens.

Despite my rough start with the game, I ended up walking away from Firewatch with a good impression overall.  I would consider it to be a slow burn throughout (no pun intended), but one that pays off really well in the end.  Most people who enjoy these types of games are probably already well aware of Firewatch, but I would encourage even those who aren't to at least give the game a chance.  It certainly won't please an adrenaline junkie, but there is a unique and interesting experience waiting here for those who are willing.  Firewatch can be found on Xbox One, PS4, and PC via digital distribution platforms.

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Thanks for your take! It's always interesting to hear from someone who isn't normally into games like this. Personally, I had a lot of issues with the story, characters, and where it all goes. I appreciated the effort though. The graphics are really nice, the music is excellent and moving, I just wish it all had gelled together better.

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