Firewatch is a short game. It only takes a couple of hours to play through, and there isn’t a lot of replayability. Over the course of three days, an hour or two a night, my wife and I played Firewatch to completion.
We purchased and played Firewatch on our PS4. At times, I noticed small performance dips, particularly in areas with an overabundance of trees (sigh, foliage), but those moments were few and far between, and I’ve read that a future patch will address performance issues.
I believe reviews should be upfront about their recommendations, so here it is: you should buy and play Firewatch. Even if walkabout adventure games don’t interest you, Panic and Campo Santo have produced a combination of gameplay and presentation that you’ve likely never seen before.
In an industry of Triple-A titles and blockbuster marketing campaigns, Firewatch, which seems to relish its normalcy, isn’t just rare, it’s respite.
Visuals and Voice acting
The game world is awe-inspiring, but doesn’t try to trick you into thinking it’s the real thing. Campo Santo did a fantastic job of shaping an art style that is one part polygon, one part clay, which results in this soft, digitally distinct type of visual. It’s great. You’re going to catch yourself just staring at a few of the landscapes and forest scenes. Some of the views are even worthy of printing out, and the PC version of Firewatch lets you do just that.
Equally as stimulating is the voice acting. Rich Sommer (Henry) and Cissy Jones (Delilah) out distance their scripts and give a performance that is raw and intoxicating. Meandering through the woods in silence, your anxiety increases with the amount of time Delilah doesn’t radio in over your walkie-talkie. When she does, it’s relief.
Throughout your conversations, you’re in control of Henry’s responses. Every time a dialogue prompt comes up, you’re given an indicator as to how much time you have to answer. It forces you to maintain the tempo of conversation. Or not. Sometimes Delilah would ask stupid questions (she drinks, from time to time), and I’d ignore her with silence.
Navigating the outdoors
Some folks have called Firewatch a walking simulator. That’s fair. You do a decent amount of walking around, but navigating the environment takes a little more effort than in most games. There’s no persistent mini-map that shows you your location. In order to get your bearings, Henry must pull out his paper map, which tends to bend and flap slightly as you hold it. That might sound irritating, but it’s not. Eventually, you’ll get good at identifying landmarks and certain rock formations that lead to and from your lookout tower.
One peculiar crutch Firewatch gives you is a pulsing indicator on the map that represents your current location. You can turn this off in the settings, if you wish. I would have loved to hear the conversations about why they chose to turn the indicator on by default.
The other navigational tool at your disposal is a compass, and it’s as simple a compass as you’ll find. North, South, East, West. Spin around to face the direction you want to head and off you go.
Interestingly, albeit obviously, you can’t jog while holding open the map, only walk. You can jog with just the compass, which makes some of the longer, more complicated treks easier to make.
Pull up map, orient with compass, go. A walking simulator for sure, but a cathartic one no doubt.
This leads to an important aspect of Firewatch: the navigation and conversation never pauses the game. Aside from tinkering with the settings or viewing archived notes you’ve saved, the game never stops. Firewatch takes great care in making sure the traditional meta-tasks of a game like this don’t take away from the realism of the situation you’re in.
I’ve read a number of reviews that said the ending didn’t live up to what the narrative had built. I disagree. I think that Firewatch is a humble story, a human tale, and the climax of the plot was true to that end.
In my library of adventure titles, Firewatch would be the comic book. It’s a short story, and it takes place shortly after a troubled origin for our hero. There aren’t volumes of backstory, and there aren’t pages of dialogue. That said, a story isn’t considered good, just because it is long. In Firewatch, even the more mundane conversations carry a sense of intentionality. Like a comic book, the entire story is framed against an art style that not only complements the dialogue, but also offers far more subtext than any footnote could.
You’re asking yourself if Firewatch is worth $20. I say yes. I’d say yes at $30. What Firewatch lacks in length, it makes up for in visuals and voice acting, both of which are some of the best I’ve experienced in a video game.
Nothing that Panic and Campo Santo have done here is unique to Firewatch — you’ll find bits of presentation and gameplay from other titles. Yet, the way it’s all packaged up is what makes playing Firewatch so good. Like a great comic book, it won’t take you all day to finish the story, but the emotional impact will hang around, long after you’ve left the Wyoming wilderness.