My stuff and your stuff: I write books, produce music, rant a bit, and in the meantime review things other people have done. With words.
David Kimberley walks and talks
The walk-em-up. The walking simulator. The FPW (first person walker). Whatever you want to call them, this new genre of game has well and truly arrived on consoles and PC alike, leading to yet another divide among players. Some enjoy the slower pace and the time to take in the graphics, sounds and storylines. Others just want to kick the shit out of things.
Firewatch is the latest ‘wanderer’ to arrive and I decided to try it out, just to discover which side of the divide I stood on. Advertised as both a first person adventure and a mystery game, the initial premise was promising. You play as Henry, who takes a job as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness after his personal life takes a turn for the worst and who befriends Delilah, another lookout who frequently contacts Henry via their walkie-talkies. It is this relationship that forms the basis for the game and offers you various conversational options, allowing you to decide how to respond and ultimately shape the way the story progresses.
After the text-based intro that gives you Henry’s background and some context for ending up in the woods, you are thrown into the wilderness with nothing but your backpack and a snazzy pair of shorts that show off Henry’s stubbly tree trunks. After learning to use your map and compass, the game begins to show you that it should actually be called a FPO (first person orienteering) as you navigate your way to the watchtower that will be your home for the next three months. It is there that you first meet Delilah (through the walkie-talkie), who is hard to dislike with her flirtatious nature and terrible puns. From your new home, you can even look across the wilderness and see her tower in the distance.
The story begins to move forward steadily, broken down into days where Henry is sent out by Delilah to check on a variety of issues, which range from telling off some young women for setting off fireworks to checking out distant smoke. The mystery element arrives rather unexpectedly when a stranger starts causing problems for Henry and leads both the grizzled rookie and Delilah down a meandering trail to unearth just what the hell is going on while also sending them on a journey of self-exploration and discovery (not in a pervy way).
You see, Firewatch may offer adventure elements and an intriguing mystery but it is more about the way the two stars of the game deal with their own personal demons and insecurities. The developers, Campo Santo, clearly wanted to make something deep that stayed with you long after the credits have rolled and you do begin to care about them both in a strange way.
Graphically, Firewatch is both occasionally gorgeous and yet frustratingly average. When you reach the top of a rise and gaze down at a landscape illuminated by the beautiful sunset, it lifts you. When you examine an item only to have the edges alarmingly disappear through your hand, it ruins the scene that Campo Santo are setting.
Sound-wise, I could not fault it. The voice acting is excellent and the humour will make you chuckle at times. The fact that Delilah is such a potty-mouth only adds to this and the moment she calls you in a drunken stupor is pure gold. The sounds of the wilderness are also always present. Birds chirping, animals scampering away as you approach and the eerie crack of twigs as you realise someone else is out there with you. All good…except you rarely ever see an animal that goes with the noises. For all its splendour, the Wyoming wilderness feels somewhat empty.
There may be a number of positives but Firewatch unfortunately has too many flaws to ignore. Early in the game, you can choose how to deal with the noisy teens skinny-dipping in the lake. You can confiscate their boombox, simply give them a ticking off or, best of all, throw said boombox into the lake just to be a total dick. Whichever way you go, you will end up being called a perv for leering at them, which I felt genuinely hurt by. No matter how much you zoom in, you can’t even see a boob (not that I tried). The problem comes after this.
The game never raises any other situations that give you a number of ways to deal with the matter at hand, and that is just plain annoying. Sure, you can tell Delilah to calm down or bugger off and leave you alone, but, when faced with a gate that you need to bypass, the game simply says ‘now traverse the entire map to go get an axe to open it’. It would have been much better to give the player the option to climb the fence (it was not exactly rimmed with barbed wire) or even try kicking the gate open.
The other painfully disappointing element is the length of the game. I completed it in less than four hours, which left me feeling as though I had missed something or had not played it properly. It seems to flit through the final moments as though the developers just wanted to get it done and the actual ending left me wanting to play on. Having looked into the length of other ‘walkies’, it looks as though four hours is not actually the shortest but that just makes me wonder why developers are deciding to make games like this that can be finished in an afternoon. I also have to question the price tag of £14.99.
So how do I best sum Firewatch up? An emotionally charged walking sim with a dollop of mystery to hold your interest? A reminder of those orienteering lessons you had when you were out on a geography field trip, just with added drunken teens and spicy walkie-talkie chats (not unlike my school trip then)? No. It is a story-driven journey that relies on the interaction between Henners and Delilah, occasionally throwing some intrigue and exploration at the player to mix things up. It may make you walk across the entire map just to do mundane tasks but you feel compelled to do it just to see what Delilah will say. When she says ‘What do you want? A fucking medal?’, it just makes you smile and move on to the next task.
Firewatch is too short and too expensive. Fact. It is occasionally gorgeous and yet blighted by some ropey edges (pun intended). Fact. You will play it through to the end just to see how Henry and Delilah’s relationship turns out. Fact. You will enjoy the four or so hours you put into it. Fact.