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Firewatch REVIEW – A mysterious thriller with a great hook

by Joey Davidson | February 8, 2016February 8, 2016 10:00 am PDT

Firewatch is an absolutely beautiful game. We played it on the PC, and it looks wonderful from start to finish.

It’s also a very engaging game with a unique narrative delivery. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “fun,” but Firewatch is enjoyable.

Now, here’s the hitch, and I’ll dive into this deeper in this review. Firewatch won’t be for everyone. It’s well made, I really dug it and I feel like I’d be happy paying the $19.99 price tag that it carries.

However, this game carries a definite Gone Home-esque feeling to it. I refuse to spoil this experience, but those who maybe felt let down by that one might not find Firewatch worth 20 bucks.

I do, though. I didn’t really like Gone Home, but I loved this, and I’m still trying to sort out exactly why that’s the case. I think I have it figured out, too.

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In the woods, where your only friend is on the other end of a radio.

In Firewatch, you play Henry. Henry, for reasons I won’t explore, takes up a post at a firewatch in a national park. His job is to sit in his tower and look out for fires.

You don’t do much sitting in this game. Henry meets Delilah, his boss and emotional lifeline, on the other end of a radio. Delilah is Henry’s only connection to another human, and the summer unravels in a series of bizarre events.

Delilah and Henry are great together. They tease one another, go through extreme bouts of panic and even get upset. You’ll hear real emotion behind Delilah and Henry, and you’ll even detect things like subtle hints of Delilah’s drinking problem… a point that I don’t think is really even mentioned beyond referencing the booze itself.

The relationship here is the linchpin of this game. I’ll even confidently say that Firewatch wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as it is without the pair.

The game plays out like a mystery, and it’s up to players to really piece together all the disjointed bundles of information. You’ll do that by exploring, picking up objects, reading and pushing the game when it lets you.

In that sense, Firewatch is very much like Gone Home. There’s more of a narrative here, but all of the interaction is between the virtual space, its objects and the player. Campo Santo went a bit further by adding acts like climbing and hurdling to the mix, but the core play is very much the same.

Then there are the actual subtle details about the space around you. There are all sorts of books and wildlife to find. You’ll stumble upon a raccoon, a turtle and even the threat of a bear. Your lookout is packed with exactly what you’d expect to find, and the inclusion of little things like BIF peanut butter shows a wonderful attention to detail that only loving developers care to explore.

There’s a concise story to uncover here, too, and it’s one that can be tragic, gleeful, haunting and even, at times, a touch too predictable. The style of play, though, might be off-putting to some.

Making this forest your own.

What Campo Santo did here that I find really interesting is that it added layers of choice and customization to your experience. Now, I can’t figure out exactly how much disparity you can build up in this game with the choices you make, but there are things that will change your relationship with Delilah and how she responds to you slightly.

Without spoiling things, I’ll give an example. Early on in the game, there’s a disruption involving teenagers, fireworks and a boombox at a lake. You can confront those teens. Their boombox is there, blasting tunes. You can ignore it, or you can destroy it in front of them. There’s no prompt indicating that you can destroy it. No, that’s something you do entirely on your own as the player.

I picked up the boombox before I even started talking to the teens, and that drastically altered the confrontation. Instead of outright insulting me, the teens seemed to plead with me a bit. I destroyed the boombox, then the insults came. That moment where I trashed their stuff came back to haunt me in unique ways, too. It was referenced again and again in the story, and I really loved that this game that feels so static actually tailored itself to an off-the-cuff choice that I made.

In the video that heads this section, you’ll see another instance. You can name some things in the world around you. You can actively pick up and keep things that you’ll later see referenced in your lookout.

I loved all of this. My time spent in Firewatch wasn’t just me clicking through an interactive adventure, and that might be why I liked it so much more than the assuredly similar Gone Home. Yes, the tale felt scripted, but I felt like so much more of an intrinsic part of it than I have in other games.

An exercise in brevity.

Campo Santo made a clear decision that this would be a shorter game. I think my playthrough was around two hours and 30 minutes, if you cut out time spent paused for bathroom breaks. I beat it in two sittings, only taking one rest to sleep before I was back at it the next morning.

I wouldn’t say the game feels short. No, Firewatch feels tight. It feels wound up appropriately, and it never once overstays its welcome. As it unravels, it’s perfectly paced. It’s thrilling at points, and it plods along just right at others.

Backing up, looking at the counter in Steam that showed my playtime, I realized exactly how brief my experience with the title was. The thing is, it didn’t feel short. It felt right. It felt like a long movie instead of a short game, and I never once thought, “is this it?”

I’m not one to quibble about a game’s length as long as it spends its time wisely, and that goes for both short and long experiences. If a game is padded out extremely far with nothing but filler, it’s boring. If a game is cut short and doesn’t explore itself in ways you want it to, it’s disappointing.

Firewatch exists in that lovely space in the middle. I totally get that $19.99 for two or three hours is stretching it for some, and that sentiment will be echoed in my final recommendation. For me, someone who likes a well-paced experience, this game was perfect.

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Firewatch is a beautiful game with a unique narrative hook. It’s been hanging around in my head for days since I finished it.

If you like your games filled with tense action, shooting, scares and violence, Firewatch isn’t for you. This is a mystery thriller that reveals itself in a beautiful way. It’s a character piece, and it requires that players let the game take them at its own pace.

The $20 price tag is completely justifiable in my mind, but there are those out there who think that’s too tall for a short experience. If you’re in that batch, wait for a sale. If this sounds like the type of thing you dig, put it on your list of games to buy at a discount, and then snap it up ASAP.

For gamers willing to drop $20 on a novel experience? Dive in. I’d buy this game at that price. It’s lingering with me hours and days after completion. I’m still thinking about Delilah, my choices and the outcome of the story. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great experience.

Buy

Disclaimer: We received a code to download Firewatch on PC. We completed the game before starting this review.


Joey Davidson

Joey Davidson leads the gaming department here on TechnoBuffalo. He's been covering games online for more than 10 years, and he's a lover of all...

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