Firewatch Review - Smokey Bear Approved

Firewatch

Loneliness and isolation are something that games explore a lot. Most often these feelings are paired with a horror game where something is hunting you. Typically that loneliness and isolation you feel is balanced by a healthy dose of fear. Games typically take us to strange and unique places and let us live out incredible experiences that defy everything we know in the real world.

Other times games aren’t about anything like zombies, aliens, or ghosts. Sometimes they’re just about life and about people. Sometimes they are there to show you that things like loneliness and isolation don’t have to inherently be bad things. Sometimes games are there to help you and the characters work through a difficult time in life.

Firewatch on the PS4 is one of those games.

A Story We Can All Relate To

The story is Firewatch is one that hits a lot of beats throughout the brief journey. The game isn’t much longer than three or four hours at the most (and priced at $20), but it manages to make you feel a lot of things by the time the credits roll. Of course, emotional games are nothing new, but Firewatch brought a few things both good and bad to the table that made it stand out from the rest of the so-called “walking simulators” out there.

I hate that name, by the way. Walking Simulator is just a passive aggressive way of describing a game where exploration and narrative take center stage. From here on out, I won’t be referring to Firewatch as such, but since the term has become more widely used, I figured I would explain.

Back to the story. Firewatch stars a middle-aged man named Henry who, after some things have happened in his life, decides to spend his summer working as a Firewatch in the in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. From the moment you first set foot in henry’s tower called “Two Forks,” you already know him.

The game’s opening does a fantastic job of building up his character and putting you in his shoes. I won’t spoil anything because a game like this lives and dies by its story, but its effective to say the least. Once you get settled into your place, you’re soon introduced to Delilah, a woman who is both your supervisor and your only human contact in the wilderness. She works at a nearby tower and maintains contact with you throughout the game via your handheld radio.

The game’s levels are divided into days that jump around over the course of the summer months. By the end of day one, you’ve already had some time to talk to Delilah and choose each of your responses before you say them. There’s already chemistry between the characters by the end of the first day, which speaks to the quality of the writing and the acting.

I like Henry, and I like Delilah. These are people I could be friends with, and that’s the thing; they feel like real people. The back and forth between them is equal parts snarky and sincere. The dialogue alone is the strongest part of the game by far.

As far as the rest of the story goes, well, that’s more complicated. You see, Firewatch starts out with a slow but purposeful stride and then quickly builds up a mystery that carries you through the main part of the game. It’s a very intriguing mystery that evolves and grows to the point where you’re on the edge of your seat ready to see what happens next.

Its builds, and builds, and builds until you’re just aching for the big twist. Then, it arrives and instead of the big reveal that you’re expecting, the truth is painfully grounded in reality. I’m not saying that there should have been ghosts or a monster, but the way the game builds things up, I expected more.

Not only that, but once the reveal happens, the game hurries to the end and leaves you as quickly as it came. I’m not saying the game needed to be longer, but the big reveal kind of gave way to slippery slope that hurried you to the end.

Ultimately, Firewatch is a story worth experiencing, hands down. How you feel when you walk away from it will ultimately depend on how much you expect from the twists and turns it throws at you. Like any good story about life, this one is flawed and ends before it feels like it’s finished.

In that way, Firewatch does a perfect job of placing us in the shoes of two real people dealing with real problems and handling them in a place where they can be alone with their thoughts. It’s a game about life, set in a place as far from civilization as you can get without being on the moon. Could it have been better? Sure, but what’s here is still quite the accomplishment.

Conversation With a Side of Exploration

Like other games in this exploration genre, Firewatch’s gameplay relies almost entirely on exploring the environments around you, and speaking with Delilah on your walkie-talkie. This would be a complete chore if the dialogue and voice acting wasn’t so good. Luckily, the back and forth between Henry and Delilah ensures that you’ll be calling her up every chance you get.

The game seamlessly switches between snarky banter and serious conversation with a perfect flow that never feels forced. You can interact with items in the world by picking them up and examining them. Here you’ll find extra bits of story as you read documents and unlock caches that contain supplies for fellow lookouts.

Other activities in the game are dependent on what you’re doing. You’ll rappel down walls or chop down foliage in your way, among other things. Another major aspect of the gameplay involves using your map and compass to navigate through the forest. While the game isn’t completely open world, you will need these tools to navigate down the various pathways in the game.

This is one of those games where most of your input beyond sheer exploration goes into choosing dialogue options. For some people, that won’t be enough, but if you enjoy other games like this such as Telltale’s Walking Dead or Tales From the Borderlands series, then Firewatch will certainly scratch your itch for another story-heavy game. In the end, though, don’t expect to be shooting anyone or slicing and dicing. It’s not that kind of game.

Gorgeous Graphics by Talented Artists

While multiple artists and people worked on the game (as you would expect) the visual style was pioneered by an artist named Olly Moss. The chosen visual style for the game is what makes Firewatch stand out among other indie titles. There’s nothing wrong with old school graphics or pixelated styles, but Firewatch doesn’t immediately come across as an indie game when you look at screenshots.

Everything has a kind of solid pastel look to it, and this combines incredibly well with the bright and vivid color palette. In a nutshell? Bob Ross would be proud of this game’s artistic world. It may not have photorealistic graphics, but it has such a defined style that it immediately grabs your eye.

The game uses music sparingly, but when it does it chooses soothing instrumental tracks or the occasional tune from the time period where the game takes place (1989). The only real technical issue I encountered during my time with the game was in the form of frame rate stutters that the developer is aware of. As of this writing (one week after the game’s release), a patch has not been issued, but the problem isn’t very distracting.

All in all, Firewatch is another stellar entry in the PS4’s library of indie titles. While the story does promise more than it delivers, the writing, acting, and visuals of the game are amazing enough on their own to warrant your time in this rendition of the Wyoming wilderness.

Final Score: 8.0/10

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