System: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch | Publisher: Campo Santo, Panic
Developer: Campo Santo | Reviewed On: PC
Debut release from developer Campo Santo, Firewatch, follows the trails of a Fire Lookout named Henry at Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, a year after the Yellowstone fires of '88.
Remember those days when you went camping outdoors with family or friends, with nothing but the sound of crickets surrounding you as you look up at the starry night sky, drinking whiskey? No, neither do I, but that's a thing right?
Anyway, this game is reminiscent of that if you were ever party to it. Blissful ey? - hold that thought.
There's nothing but, cliffs, valleys, wilderness and bodies of water in every direction you look, and you're tasked with being a Fire Lookout and keeping the region safe from wildfires. You're in contact with just one other person over a walkie-talkie, your Fire Lookout supervisor, Delilah, who keeps you on the right path in your new role.
Now, this may seem like a pretty boring way to spend your time, unless you're a reality simulator buff, but don't be fooled, this game is not what it appears at first glance.
The game starts out by describing the events leading up to your isolation as a Fire Lookout, describing your relationship with your wife from bloom to gloom and the turmoil that ensues when she is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, giving you certain decisions to make as the backstory is laid out. What effect these decisions have is unclear at this point, but I'm assuming there are multiple ways in which your backstory is depicted in the forthcoming dialogue when you actually start the game.
So, you're all set and embedded in your wooden lookout fortress and ready to go. You've left your problems at home to fester whilst you're in self-imposed isolation, everything is fine in the world and you've just gotten used to navigating the unknown terrain using a compass, a map, and the very few markers that have been given to you.
But here's where it becomes interesting (Christ, does it become interesting!)...
As you go about your daily hikes, strange things begin to happen and the frequency and intensity of these peculiar occurrences increase as you traverse the story. At various points, I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next, especially at nightfall, wandering around with the unease of the storyline on my back.
Adding to the suspense, weirdly, is an extraneous thing but subliminally effective in its delivery, and that's the introduction of a wildfire, origins unknown, that begins burning at a distance part way through. By the end, the fire is raging to the point where you cannot see much in front of you from the smoke which forces a rescue party to collect you and Delilah from your posts.
The story is fantastically written, its as simple as that, and for a debut title, the developers have gotten something completely right with the writer(s) they used. This is precisely where the game comes into its own and becomes more of a cinematic experience - Firewatch could quite easily be a slow-burning thriller on the big screen.
Another notable mention and praise for Campo Santo is their choice and calibre of voice actors. The voice acting for Henry and Delilah is something to be proud of, it flows smoothly and is both fluid and effortless, and more importantly, the voices just work. The mechanism used for the dialogue is easy to use and works well with timed responses, and if a response is missed, the conversation continues in a natural way which is handy if you're concentrating on something else. Again, what effect refraining from responding to Delilah has on the ultimate trajectory of the story is unknown and appears to only affect the tone of their relationship. To find out requires another playthrough or two.
Aside from the voice acting, the music puts across a very gentle and humble vibe; its subtle, fits well with the atmosphere already created by the story and does exactly what I believe Chris Remo (designer, writer & composer) set out to achieve, playing all of the instruments heard in the score, himself. At more suspenseful parts in the game, the music carries the air of tension well whilst not being overbearing. The lack of boasting audio expands the suspenseful scope to encompass the player fully in the part-void.
Made on the Unity engine, the mechanics of the game are not honorous and are simple to control. You are in first-person and are limited to what you can do. For a game in which the emphasis is supposed to be on the story, this is actually forgivable and allows the player to appreciate the script and plot that little bit more. The only negative I have in this regard is the weird and annoying glitch that happens intermittently when you step on a rock that's not meant to be stepped on or walk through a branch that's not meant to be passed, rendering you in stasis for a short period of time as you try and worm out of it.
Aside from everything else, we come back to the visuals, which are simply astounding. The art style is inspired by a single painting by artist Olly Moss, the designated artist for the project, whose style was imprinted on the game by 3d environment artist, Jane Ng, and it doesn't disappoint the old peepers. You are slapped in the face with breathtakingly vivid vistas on every mountaintop and cliff edge, and if you're able to ignore them without pausing to take in their beauty, you're not human (just saying).
You can even watch the sunset.
Firewatch has received high praise across the board for its individuality and delivery of concept but not high enough for my liking. I fear that gaming entities who scored the game almost missed what the game is actually about, scoring it at face value on the games tangible aspects. In my eyes, you have to delve deeper into the quality of the game's writing and see how the tangible blends with the intangible.
In my opinion, It's about many things which have become part of the human condition that can be considered flaws but are now a way of life in this turbulent world we live in. Illustrating tones of pain or trauma from a melancholy life, with the palpable instinct to run from one's problems, this game plays on emotion in a very big way. Mix in a few wisps of conspiracy-riddled thought process, which I feel is congruent with the human psyche of today, and you end up with a dramatic concoction that is bittersweet yet entirely impactive in every sense of the word.
There isn't much more to be said other than, play the game as I will again, love the game as I have, and understand the game in your own way as I'm sure everyone will interpret it differently.
Here's the trailer to 'ignite' you: