Games are changing, evolving and are starting to take on more heady concepts than just blasting bad guys into oblivion (although there is still nothing wrong with the latter). When the first arcade units and rudimentary game systems blinked into existence the idea that you would one day be able to sink into a good story through game or even (gulp) - have a deep emotional response because of one would have been laughed at. Games are changing.
Did anyone here play Limbo? Or the Journey? Everyone has gone to the Rapture maybe? Well no matter if you didn't, you can finish reading this review and then go and sort your life out. See games like these and hundreds more having been turning up now for years and the journey they take you on is as visceral and emotionally raw as any good book or film. The thing about Firewatch (from developer Campo Santo) is it's very difficult to review without spoiling it, because nearly every moment I could tell you about is part of why the game works so well. Even the opening sequence that sets the tone for the game is something I do not wish to tell you about because the unwrapping is part of the magic.
Settling the scene
So let's just say Henry (the chap you play as) has been through a rough time and has taken a job out in the wilderness to escape your troubles - as a lookout your job is to watch for fires in the parkland and take care of any basic jobs that need doing. As you arrive at your tower you meet (via a two way radio) a woman who is essentially your boss and who is tasked with getting you up to speed on how things work. What is immediately clear is the acting quality in this game is exceptional and is even more impressive when you consider these powerful performances are delivered with no facial cues to help nail down context.
One of the main items you will use is the hand held radio you get at the start of the game, this acts as your link to Delilah (played by Cissy Jones). As you look around a radio icon will let you know if there is something you can say to her about a certain object or view. You usually have a few options open to you and even staying quiet can lead to different branches of the conversation. The chemistry between the two main characters for me was what made this game so good with a very convincing human element that can be all so elusive in video games.
The game's aesthetic is beautifully realised with a basic painterly effect, some places almost look like cell shading but without the harsh black outline. The time of day is scripted by the dialogue and which day you are on but while this might sound like a negative it does allow the story to be played out in some of the most stunning sunsets I've ever seen in a game: the warm reds of the large red boulders and immaculate blue skies that warm the heart are sublime. As you set out from your tower you will be treated to some truly beautiful vistas and areas of the park: as usual my F12 key (Steam screenshot) was a blur but also the game does let you take pictures in game with an old disposable camera you find: one piece of advice here: use it lots. One really cool idea is that you can actually order photographs you've taken and get physical hard copies of your adventure - a novel idea indeed.
As you start to explore the tower and take on jobs you start to learn how the games interface works: it's a lovely thing. Most objects can be picked up and rotated in your hand for a closer inspection, I found myself just spending ten minutes to playing with this simple mechanic as games very rarely let you get super close to items. What is also very cool is how the textures scale up when you get closer to an object. I'm not exactly sure what the technology is called but when you look at a map on the wall and then zoom right in, the details don't go all pixilated like they would in other games: everything is crystal clear like it would be. Books, pictures, notes on the wall and even the paper map you carry with you work this way. For no reason in particular I love this intimate way of dealing with objects and it entices you to look closer at your environment for secrets as well as just being nosey. The only downside to this lovely way of interacting is that is really hints that the developers were planning to do a lot more with it because as it stands most objects you can pick up can’t be used for any purpose other than looking pretty.
After coming straight into this from playing Fallout 4 and Don't Starve the gatherer in me wanted to grab my backpack and start collecting wood: but Firewatch really isn't that type of game at all. In fact if you had shown me it's design on paper I may have dismissed it as just another narrative driven walking simulator: Jesus that scares me and makes me question how many other gems I might have passed on over the years. I would say that the game mechanics are sometimes a little clumsy, such as the climbing over things action or the way you are very purposely funnelled in a certain direction by invisible walls. Again, this should have really annoyed me - but it didn't in the slightest because I was so enthralled by what was going on with the bigger picture. More and more I play these games and wonder: how would this feel in Virtual Reality? I hope the developers consider this and update the game appropriately.
Firewatch reached deep inside my head and affected me in a way I don't recall any other game doing, ever. Sure I've been sad in games before, elated, shocked and a whole list of other emotions: but Firewatch seems to have made me feel these emotions in their purest most honest form. I think the closest comparison I can make to it is Everyone has gone to the Rapture, which if you have not experienced I heartily recommend you do.
Of course the sad thing about any game or film that has this effect on you is that it's rarely as good as the first time and makes you almost wish they had those memory erasing clinics like in Eternal Sunshine. If I had to give the game any criticism at all it would be that it's end was a little disappointing for me, but if ever a game deserved to use the 'it's about the journey' cliché Firewatch does. As I sit here and think about it (and if I'm honest) it's more that I didn't want the story to end but even the good stories need an conclusion.
Just so you know in terms of game length it is short and if you play all the way through in one sitting you're looking at a few hours. So for some this may not represent an good investment of money but guys please believe me when I tell you this: what Firewatch gives you isn't about time: it's the experience that makes it so very worth the money. Interestingly Kotaku reported on one Steam user asking the community if a refund would be appropriate and one of the developers actually responded. The way she handled herself and made her point makes me think we have a very special development team here and I hope they stay together to make more games like this. I would consider Firewatch a must play game and one that I will be thinking about for many weeks to come. It's almost like the glades, lakes and forests that you amble through, as well as the people that open their deepest feelings to you feel like real places and people - and that is the best recommendation I can give for any game.
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Take Care guys,