Firewatch – An Indie Game Review

firewatch screenshot scraggly tree
Firewatch – An Indie Game Review

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Mac, Steam

Game Name: Firewatch

Publisher: Panic Inc., Campo Santo

Developer: Campo Santo

Genre: Adventure

Release Date: February 6th, 2016

Firewatch – What We Think:

Through a series of complicated life events, Henry (voiced by Rich Sommer, of Mad Men fame) lands a position in the forestry industry to man a firewatch tower in a state park. It’s a mainly solitary gig, and this is what Henry thinks is the best thing for him.

Set in a lush and brilliantly-hued forest, Firewatch spins a complex and compelling tale filled with humor, intrigue and frank discussions about the decisions in life no one wants to make.

firewatch screenshot vista

Run, Forest!

The game begins with a musical interlude and reflections presented as text entries detailing moments in Henry’s past. Some are followed by player choices that will slightly shape the way the rest of the story unfolds. These are periodically broken up with sequences of Henry in the woods that introduce the play controls. The tale that unfolds is touching, and sets a lost and mournful tone.

Henry’s new position has him standing guard over an expanse within a Wyoming State Park. From his tower, he is charged with watching for signs of trouble and dealing with them quickly. Not long into his first day, he notices fireworks going off and treks out to find the offenders.

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

He has a map and a compass to help chart paths through the wilderness. Though these tools are helpful, it’s incredibly easy to get lost. The paths aren’t always obvious, and there is a lot if impassible terrain to be found. I spent a good chunk of my first couple of hours backtracking from dead ends.

There were also a few objects in the woods that I would get stuck on. While I was able to get out after a couple of minutes of trial and error, these instances took me out of the story when they happened.

firewatch screenshot smoky

Locked supply caches can be found, and some of them will contain items needed to access other areas. This effectively limits the zones you can reach in the initial hour of the game. Each new cache will also allow Henry to update his map with notes of the nearby points of interest.

Wandering through the woods is a delight. The devs at Campo Santo have done a stellar job in creating organic and lifelike forest terrain, while still maintaining an artistically crafted feel. The landscape is vast and diverse, and gives weight to the scope of Henry’s duties. Later in the game, the lush blues and greens give way to vibrant reds and oranges. Wind, light and smoke all intertwine, lending a quietly stirring soul to the forest itself.

Why? Why? Why, Delilah?

Henry’s solitary point of contact is another park ranger named Delilah (voiced by Cissy Jones, known for her role in The Walking Dead: The Game), and he only ever communicates with her over his walkie talkie. Their banter starts out playfully as Henry learns the ropes (sometimes literally) in his new position. As they grow comfortable with each other, back story information emerges from both, and the relationship deepens.

firewatch screenshot rapelling
Learnin’ the ropes – or – Je r’appelle Henry

Once Henry has dealt with the fireworks offenders, bizarre events begin to transpire involving someone else in the forest. Henry and Delilah find themselves trying to unravel the reasons behind these occurrences, and each new lead spins them deeper into a well of terror and anxiety. The tension is high, as both Henry and Delilah are at risk, and still for the most part completely alone in the woods.

Firewatch is worth playing more than once just for the diversity of dialogue options. The voice acting from both principal leads is exceptional, and they make good use a highly intelligent script. Though the choices don’t have any impact on the endgame, the chemistry between the actors makes each new interaction gripping, especially as the story reaches its climax.

Burning Out

With all the insidious trappings of the backstory, I was more than a little put off with the ending. Things wrap up, and the credits roll in an almost unceremonious fashion. But in mulling over what Henry had just been through, and holding it up against his other reality, the game’s conclusion is solid and grounded. Even amidst all the drama, intrigue, humor and danger that play out of the short five hour journey, realistically, this might be the best ending Henry could have hoped for.

firewatch screenshot smoky

Firewatch with Me

Still, Henry’s tale is one worth telling. Within the roughly 5 hours it takes to complete the game, Henry and Delilah tramp out an adventure that spans a summer. Besides the narrative, the visuals make exploring the woods a worthwhile endeavor. Overall, it is a deeply touching experience, kept somewhat light by the punchy rapport of the two affable leads.

Firewatch is a worthwhile walk in the woods.

Firewatch is available via the PlayStation Store and Steam.

[xrr rating=”4.5/5″]

Watch the trailer for Firewatch below: