From a few of the minds behind the critically acclaimed, and emotionally exasperating, season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead comes Firewatch; a simple game, with a seemingly simple plot, and a lot of heart. It is a dialogue heavy title where you interact with objects, walk/sprint/climb, and, in the vein of TWD, has a timed dialogue tree. Decisions must be made quick or time runs out, which may lead to information being missed or other options being lost. Though decisions, also akin to TWD, are not as impactful in the long run as they seem upfront, a facet that may be hit or miss depending on the player.
Set in 1989, you play Henry, a blue-collar every man’s man, who’s married to a college professor who is diagnosed with dementia just as her career begins to hit its stride. From there, the game tells the story of Henry escaping that life, taking a break from it in the Wyoming wilderness as a fire lookout. In this regard the game excels. How do you manage being married to someone who is physically present, but mentally absent? Henry chooses to escape, and the emotional weight of it is seen throughout the game. Touches such as the player deciding to place his wedding ring on his finger or leave it on his desk in the watchtower, or standing the picture of him and his wife, Julia, back up after he had previously laid it flat, are among the things that make the narrative soar. This is where the trouble comes in. Delilah, Henry’s boss, is a voice, just a voice, over the walkie-talkie, guiding the experience while also aiding in the player’s search of learning more about Henry as a person. She is bold and unafraid to ask whatever comes to mind, even she has to reel herself in sometimes with an immediate apology. Her character is another of Firewatch’s strengths; the dialogue between the two is dynamic and beautifully written, an aspect that is only improved when the phenomenal voice acting is taken into consideration. Quickly, you come to realize that she too has her flaws, like everyone, and this serves to make the character moments between Delilah and Henry that much more potent.
However, the story is not without its hiccups. There are a few embedded narratives, that seem thrown in, but meld into the main storyline in an arguably incoherent and disparate manner. These side narratives, occur somewhat naturally in the game world, but abruptly in the plot and leave much to be desired. Midway through the experience, as a side effect of the game’s poor pacing, the seemingly main plotline between Delilah and Henry gets benched in order to make room for everything else. A sad occurrence that leaves the ending feeling empty and unresolved.
The whole experience cannot be summed up in such a black or white manner, the gameplay itself, while minimal, often obstructs and lessens the experience. The game is in first person, and a lot of time is spent walking and exploring. Sounds fun, but it isn’t always. There are various instances where the player will need to, or want to, talk to Delilah about something on screen, a note from previous lookouts, or an object in an abandoned campsite, but the issue is getting the cursor to rest on the object specifically. The controls to select an object to view/talk about are finicky and frustrating; so much so that in high tension situations, the mood can be ruined or lost just as quickly as its gained. Another factor of the controls breaking the immersion is in the act of traversing the world. The map is physical one Henry pulls out in game, with the touch of ‘up’ on the d-pad. At first, the idea is fantastic, you feel like you too are in the wilderness and lost with the player-character, but the feeling is short-lived. There exists no indicator, such as an arrow on the map, to allow the player to instantly see which direct they are traveling. It is truly like being lost in the woods, not a particularly fun aspect in a game if the map has to be repeatedly pulled up, scrolled through, put back down, and the character moved left to right constantly to get an inclination of their whereabouts. This makes the continuous backtracking a nuisance as well since the map doesn’t reflect the game world as well as it probably should.
The game is gorgeous. It has a Pixar like quality to the art design that makes the world a beautiful one to traverse, despite the movement and control drawbacks. However, at least on the PS4 version, pop-ins of trees, landscape, and structures crop up with abandon, and the constant stuttering further breaks the immersion (as of this review, a patch has not been released or announced).
The game is a short one, which does not detract from it; in fact, it would have benefited from being ten minutes shorter in the end when a lengthy trek across the map could have been eliminated. As the credits rolled in Firewatch Gary Allan’s “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful” popped in my head, not because of its subject matter, which is fitting, but because of the message: “but it’s a beautiful ride.” Firewatch is simply an intriguing journey, a beautiful yet bumpy ride, with a destination that may leave behind a sour taste.
Must you own this? No
Must you play this? No
Should you play this? Yes, it is a fair experience that does not deserve to be ignored, but if you happen to miss it… you won’t be missing much.
(Reviewed on PlayStation 4)