Firewatch – PlayStation 4
Platform: Sony PlayStation 4
Developer: Campo Santo
Release Date: February 9th, 2016
Nerd Rating: 6.5 out of 10
Firewatch is a first-person adventure game with a heavy story emphasis. The player begins the game by making their way through a bit of text-based story, establishing their background in the world of Firewatch. This scenario opens up almost immediately to the meat of the game, where the player takes control of the character Henry. Henry has recently taken a firewatch job in the wilderness of Wyoming. Firewatching is a pretty solitary job, consisting mainly of a lot of sitting around, waiting for fires to happen. Henry’s cabin is situated on a picturesque hillside with a complete view of the surrounding areas and his only companion throughout the entire game is fellow firewatch Delilah, who communicates to Henry through walkie-talkie. These elements make up the core gameplay throughout Firewatch, as Henry and Delilah build a unique, long-distance relationship while working to preserve the Shoshone wilderness.
The gameplay in Firewatch is exploration-based. It’s not very involved; the player simply walks around the map to accomplish the various tasks that Delilah gives him, exploring little nooks and crannies at their leisure. There is no time limit on tasks, leaving the player free to do whatever they want along the way. The heavy emphasis on story means that very few action-based segments occur, with most of the game’s story and action taking place through the open-ended dialogue between Henry and Delilah, where the player can choose responses to Delilah’s conversation. The response choices are varied, each offering unique progressions within a conversation, which really tailors the relationship shared between the player and Delilah, creating a very real sense of bonding.
The world of Firewatch has a really good physicality to it. Items can be picked up, put down, and tossed. Each action feels good. While not absolutely necessary in terms of gameplay, it’s a nice touch that makes the world feel a little bit more involved. There are also several opportunities for the player to inject a little bit of their own personality into the game based on how they interact with certain items. These moments don’t have much bearing on the story, but they’re enjoyable nonetheless.
While the items might have a good presence, the map is somewhat lacking. It’s large enough, offering a good amount of exploration, but there are a lot of funnels, making the map feel a little bit more restrictive than it needs to be. These funnels take the form of rappelling sections or bits of brush that need to be cleared that separate one area from the next. This means that there are no alternate ways to get to some areas, even if the barrier between one area and the next is simply a rock that could easily be climbed in the real world. There were several moments while playing this game that I became frustrated by the fact that Henry seemed entirely unable to walk up a slightly steep incline, while I could easily have done it myself. In the world of video games, people rarely find themselves comparing their own abilities to the abilities of the characters, but with Firewatch it was almost unavoidable due to how crippled Henry seems to be.
The biggest grievance, by far, is the existence of a few invisible walls that completely block off access to certain areas. There is nothing in the way, such as a rock or thicket; the area is simply inaccessible because the designers said so. This is the biggest slap in the face in terms of level design in Firewatch, which really harms player immersion and could have been fixed rather effortlessly. Despite all these drawbacks, there really is something to be said about how enjoyable it is to do a little orienteering, using the map and compass to find your way around.
The story of Firewatch is rather good. I’m not too keen on spoilers, so I’ll just say that shit gets pretty real toward the end. The conversations that the player has with Delilah offer good character and plot development, and by the end I felt a real connection with her, which was facilitated in no small part by how open-ended the dialogue was. Even though the story was good, it felt as if it took precedent over everything else, to the point that there wasn’t much actual firewatching going on. I wish that the game had taken a few steps back to allow the player to further immerse themselves in the world by accomplishing the job that they are there to do. Perhaps the development team could have scripted some more tasks to accomplish, or added an element where they actually have to stay on the lookout for fires. My biggest disappointment while playing this game was not being able to spot and report fires. I have absolutely no problem with story-based games, but it seemed almost too prominent here, with few moments of pure gameplay.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the story is how linear it is. I mentioned how open-ended the conversations are, so it’s a shame that the story didn’t take a similar approach. Within the story of Firewatch are a handful of milestones that the player will hit, no matter what they do. Even the ending. This tight linearity, especially in a game that’s based around its story and the player’s ability to make decisions, diminishes the player’s sense of self-efficacy and control over their own fate. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if so many other elements in Firewatch didn’t stress how open-ended it can be. The ending is perhaps the most disappointing part, since there’s nothing the player can do to achieve anything different.
Right from the start, the graphics in Firewatch appear very similar to Team Fortress 2. Textures are very simple with high levels of color intensity. The main character’s hands are even blocky, just like the characters from TF2. I don’t consider this much of a problem, since it ends up looking so good. The seeming simplicity of the art style in Firewatch lends itself for some very picturesque moments, with a very impressive draw distance and a high saturation of color during certain parts of the day. The only problem I noticed with the graphics are the significant amount of frame rate drops that will occur during regular gameplay. Almost any time I entered a new area, the frame rate would plummet to unbelievable levels. I figured that the point of having funnels and scripted rappelling sections was to disguise load times, but if that’s the case it’s extremely hard to justify why the frame rate dips like this so frequently. It’s so bad that even the ending credits experience a few drops in frame rate, which is really bizarre.
As far as sound design goes, Firewatch is pretty solid. The voice acting is really good and believable, which lends itself to the character development and appeal of the dialogue sections. Ambient forest noises that occur throughout the game help immerse the player in the world of Firewatch, with little surprise moments of instrumental music that really accentuate the beauty of the environment.
Overall, Firewatch achieves a great atmosphere through its art and audio, so much so that I often found myself taking as much time as possible to complete my tasks in order to stay in its world just a little bit longer. As short as the game was, I think it’s a testament to its design that it was able to accomplish this.
Firewatch is a good game, but not necessarily a great one. There are moments where the story and atmosphere really shine through, but there are several things holding it back. For one, the game is way too short and way too linear for its own good, offering very little in terms of open-ended gameplay. It would have been interesting to see a more fleshed-out version of the concepts found in Firewatch, and perhaps we will see something like that in the future. The level design could have been accomplished better, and I think the game would benefit from the development team placing a little bit more trust in the player to want to explore. As it is, Firewatch is more restrictive of exploration than it is supportive, which is not a great feature of a good adventure game. I usually don’t take pricing into consideration for what is and what is not a good game, but I simply don’t think this game is worth the $20 I spent on it, since it only offered around 4 hours of gameplay, with very little to no replay value. If you find yourself interested in this game, I’d recommend waiting for it to go on sale.
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