There’s something quite endearing and captivating about a game that plays more like a book than an actual game. What’s even better though, is when it’s done well – when it doesn’t matter that you’re not constantly in the midst of action sequences, or fighting for your life in various unrealistic situations – the story has you so gripped it doesn’t matter. This is what Firewatch does, quite beautifully.
There are moments where you’ll find yourself just looking at the vista in front of you, and those where you’ll happily spend ten minutes lining up the camera just so for a perfect screenshot. The variety of terrain and environment is done superbly well, and there’s enough of it that you won’t feel like you’re going over the same ground again and again.
Firewatch sort of sells itself as a mystery game, and there are certainly elements of that here – although Henry’s main job is to watch for fires, there’s a slowly unravelling story amidst the personal intrigue, and the developing relationship between Henry and Delilah. It just wouldn’t do to give away too much of the underlying story, but suffice to say it’s just present enough to give the game a proper sense of purpose without either element overpowering the other. The solitary feeling is escalated by the fact that you don’t actually see a person throughout the game. Even playing as Henry, controlling him as he grapples rock faces, climbs rocks and threads his way through trees, you’ll only ever catch glimpses of parts of him – an arm here, a leg there. It’s clearly been done by design and it’s been done well, too.
Navigating Henry through the park is not a taxing experience for the most part, although without proper care and attention it would be quite easy to lose yourself during some parts of the game. Henry carries a map that handily marks your current position, although at times it can be a little tricky to correlate what’s in front of you to what’s on the map (please, no jokes about women and map reading…). It would be difficult to be stuck for any prolonged period of time, however – and if anything, it only adds to the feeling of wilderness and isolation.
The narrative is well written, and the voice actors are perfect for it. Visually this is a stunner of a game...
Ultimately, Firewatch sets out to tell a story, and it tells it wonderfully. There are moments, however, where you are left wondering if you’re really participating in the telling of that story, or if you’re just watching it play out as you wander along. It can feel a bit like you’re being led, rather than discovering things for yourself, and at those points the immersion is damaged slightly. At times, you’ll hit certain parts in the plot and entire days and nights will pass by before you start again, which again lessens the feeling of discovery and leans more towards linearity.
Clocking in at around five hours from start to finish (more if you spend as long as I did just looking at it), Firewatch isn’t exactly breaking the bank for what it is and, more importantly, what it achieves. The narrative is well written, and the voice actors are perfect for it. Visually this is a stunner of a game let down only by a slightly lack-lustre ending – but it’s still definitely worth your time. After all, there are worse ways to spend a summer than exploring a National Forest.