Firewatch Review (PS4)
FULL DISCLOSURE: THE GAME USED FOR THIS REVIEW WAS SUPPLIED BY CAMPO SANTO
Going into Firewatch I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The only coverage of the game that I followed was from Giant Bomb, and that mostly consisted of shit like this, so it wasn’t exactly helpful. I’d also heard it getting compared to Gone Home, a game I have never played or seen any real footage of, so no help on that front. As blind as I was, and having no real expectations of what this game would be, I have to say I’m a little disappointed in the game.
After a surprisingly moving text intro, you get to play as Henry. After some personal tragedies, he needed to get away from it all and took a job as a fire lookout in Wyoming that he found in his local newspaper. Also, it’s 1989. That’s probably important. Once there he starts to develop a friendship with Delilah, his boss and another fire lookout in the next station over. Most of the game is spent talking to Delilah on your radio. From there, things get hard to talk about without spoiling story beats, but I will say that weird things start happening around Henry.
For the most part, I liked the story in this game. Things move along at weirdly quick pace, jumping the story ahead a week or a month after a single day, but it doesn’t ever feel like it’s rushing. This does make the game a lot shorter than it could have been, and that can be a problem to some people. I will say that while the length didn’t bother me, I definitely think this game could have benefited from being just a bit longer. I wanted to spend more time with these characters and see more of the development of their relationship.
The relationship between Henry and Delilah is one of the best things about Firewatch. Delilah herself is up there on the pros list, too. Delilah is one of the very small number of characters Henry interacts with throughout the game, so it’s a damn good thing the writers made her so likable. She’s charming, funny, and chock full of some of the worst puns. The way the relationship forms between her and Henry over the course of the story will probably be the thing I’ll remember about this game the most.
Compared to Delilah, Henry is a bit of a flat note at the start. Partly the voice acting and partly the writing, he didn’t seem that emotive at the beginning of the game and his voice sounded a bit off (not really sure how else to put it). But once things start going, both in the plot and the relationship side of things, Henry gets a lot better and works well with Delilah. Their exchanges really help build the two of them as characters and were one of the biggest contributing factors pushing me through this game.
The other factor was the look of the game, because fuck me this game looks great. The graphics for the game were made by Olly Moss, a graphic designer best known for his movie posters, and Jane Ng, an environment artist at Campo Santo who translated Moss’ artistic style into 3D, and she did a damn good job of it. As you look into the distance, the game starts to look more and more like an Olly Moss piece, making for some gorgeous vistas and a really vibrant feeling world. Everything that you can walk up to and interact with have very simple textures, but that’s not a diss against them. The texturing all fits in with the aesthetic the game is going for and still look great. The entire game is beautiful and is definitely going to be the thing that draws a lot of people into it.
And it’s a damn good thing the game looks good, because you’re going to be seeing a lot of it. As this is a walking simulator, you spend a good portion of your time walking around the environment. It’s a decent sized game world, so it’s a good thing you have a good and (to me) fun way of getting around. Well, not fun like the Just Cause 3 wingsuit or anything. More fun in the fact that it’s an active thing and… Fuck it, it’s a map and compass. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but I really enjoyed orienteering my way around the park. Your position is always marked on the map so you don’t get too lost, but it never shows you which direction you’re facing and the map never changes orientation. Up on the map is always north, so you have to use the compass as… well, a compass and figure out where to go from there. Any landmarks marked on the map are done in pencil by Henry, giving the map more of a feeling that it’s owned by somebody living out here rather than just another video game map. It’s one of the very few gameplay mechanics in Firewatch, and I had a great time using it.
I only have a few real problems with the game, so it’s kind of unfortunate that they’re fairly big ones. You may remember that a few paragraphs back I said that I liked the story for the most part. Well, the “for the most part” is the operative part of that sentence. I kind of hate the ending of this game. I won’t go into spoilers or anything, but I will say this: The entire game builds up this story, ratcheting up suspense and both Henry and Delilah’s frustration and worry. Then you get to the end, and it’s just a wet fart. It was such an unsatisfactory answer to everything that was happening, and it still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The story was doing a good job making things more and more tense, and the characters were throwing theories at each other, and it was really cool and engaging. And then the ending happened, and I was thoroughly disappointed.
I was also fairly disappointed when I realized what impact my choices had on the world and the narrative, which turned out to not be very much. Firewatch is a narrative driven game with dialogue options, and after the recent slew of games that fit that description from Telltale and Dontnod, I figured that my choices would shape my relationship with Delilah and affect the outcome of the story. The narrative is basically set in stone in terms of how it progresses and the ending, so your choices in the game only amount to a slightly different line from Delilah before things get right back on track. It almost feels like I have no real control over anything that’s happening and I’m just along for the ride. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case I would have liked my choices to carry more weight.
The final, and much more serious, problem is on the tech side. This game runs like shit on PS4. The entire time I was playing it, the framerate would jump all over the goddamned place. It got borderline unplayable in some instances and almost nauseating in others due to this weird thing where the horizontal camera movement speed suddenly accelerated after holding it for a second. Load times got progressively longer as the game went on, one time even locking up on a loading screen so I had to restart the game to get it working again, and on one occasion half the assets in an area were missing and they only popped in once I walked a ways into it. All of these things made the entire experience of playing Firewatch less enjoyable than it would have been otherwise.
(Reviewer Note: For the sake of disclosure, I feel like I should say that Campo Santo sent a code for the PC version of the game along with the PS4 code. I played a bit of the PC version and it is definitely a marked improvement. Better consistent loading times and a solid 60fps, this is definitely the version to get if you want this game. But, I asked Campo Santo for the PS4 version for review, and so I decided to stick with the PS4 version. If I were reviewing the PC release it would have a different score, probably around 3.5, but I chose this path and I’m sticking to it.)
Campo Santo has the potential to make a great game, and you can see some of the potential in Firewatch. They have a great art team, and some decent writers who can write some real good characters. But Firewatch is not a great game. The technical problems with the PS4 version worsen the experience of playing the game, the ending is not as good as the rest of the story is, and despite the fact that I loved and was completely invested in their relationship, Henry is severely overshadowed by Delilah in almost every way. This was not a great first outing for Campo Santo, but I do look forward to what they do next.