Format: PS4 (tested) & PC

Released: February 2016

Firewatch is utterly beautiful to look at. There is no denying it. Wandering around an almost deserted forest landscape as the day cycles into night lends itself perfectly to those moments where you stand atop of a ridge or rock formation and just look out across the trail you’ve walked and think wow. Sunsets and sunrises in particular are awe inspiring.

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Firewatch’s map and compass navigation is fantastically retro and really immerses you in the land

Firewatch is also a beautiful in another way – the way how it deals with conversation and relationships when you can’t see the person on the other side – remote relationships if you will – and it’s arguably Firewatch’s biggest achievement.

The gameplay in Firewatch is a very simple fetch quest, although it’s what happens between the fetching that is at the crux of the game. You are radioed by your boss, Delilah, to deal with certain issues that arise as a warden of a vast area of forest. Collecting supplies, putting out camp fires – that kind of thing. However, not all is as it seems and over the 4 – 5 hours of play you’ll uncover an interesting mystery and which is all about one thing – trust. Trust in the one woman you have contact with – Delilah.

Delilah is without doubt the star of the show. Cissy Jones does a fantastic job voicing a woman who balances sarcasm, wit, sass and vulnerability and be able to flip between them in a few sentences. She’s the boss you’d go down the pub with for a laugh but she’d kick your arse if you aren’t pulling your weight in a heartbeat. For each thing you do in Firewatch, you can talk to Delilah about it. You don’t have to – but she’s the kind of girl you’d like to have around to chat with so you end up reporting things right down to getting stung by a bee. It’s a testament to the character and writing strength that when she’s not around you miss her.

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The whole game is full of instagram porn like this. It has an 80’s old camera sheen to it

Without spoiling the plot, which is at least 50% of why you play an interactive story game, the narrative places you at odds with Delilah about whether or not she really is who she says she is and actually is this all part of a bigger manipulation of you, Henry, who moulds around the vast amount of dialogue choices you make. Although ultimately all the stories end up nigh on the same, the experience by choosing different dialogues, or ignoring Delilah all together will ultimately alter your entire mood and journey getting there. The fear of not knowing is what drives the narrative along.

The controls of movement are well implemented (yes there is a run button) but the controls of your walkie talkie take some time to get used to as it uses the shoulder buttons to switch dialogue options and as much of your replies are time dependant the first few replies I missed and so Delilah got the hump that I didn’t reply (sorry boss!) however once it clicks it work’s nicely. Getting everywhere by map and compass was refreshingly brilliant. I enjoyed gaining my bearings on what I’d passed and there’s huge sections that aren’t even explored if you don’t stay on the story path and go exploring. Although the story itself will have little replay value, there certainly is in collecting random bits and bobs and exploring every part of the map.

During my playthrough to completion on PS4, I experienced no crashes but there were a few bugs with draw distances and loading of textures. Essentially if you are turning around quickly the game becomes a motion blur for a split second as it loads what’s behind you quickly and sometimes it would take a bit of time to come into focus. It didn’t detract from the game much but it takes you out of the experience slightly, although a patch was released today that may have reduced this somewhat. I also found it strange that I could pick things up and throw them around but not once was it ever used as a thing, nor my inventory. I did wonder if more interaction was planned and then removed as all I kept doing was placing books and photos back on my shelves as I was getting annoyed that got moved everywhere. Similarly you find things like axes, hammers and cameras but nothing is really done with them and it felt a bit of a wasted chance to add in some meaningful gameplay elements. What’s here in the game is fine, and it gives a solid and pointed experience – but I could have spent more time out there looking after some wildlife (curiously there is none) or doing some maintenance.

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Sometimes you just stare out into the distance in awe

Positives

  • Fantastic dialogue writing and vocal performances by the entire cast
  • Some jaw dropping beautiful scenery
  • Feels bigger than the some of its parts and I felt had more to say about me as a person than maybe the game as an experience
  • Map and compass navigation is a treat

Negatives

  • Sometimes the draw distance and screen tearing is quite noticeable
  • Underused abilities that could have really expanded Firewatch into a more interactive experience rather than a walk and talk

Conclusion

Although I feel there’s some missed opportunities to make something great even better by using some of the excellent things they had already implemented into some more meaty gameplay, the story about making a friend through the phone is a fascinating one and it really drew me in. If a game makes me continue to play to the conclusion both in dread and hope for what the outcome may or may not be – surely that’s the sign that the game has done a cracking job?

A genuinely uniquely isolating experience.

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