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Firewatch Review: A Brushfire Experience

Firewatch review

Firewatch was one of the games that left a lasting impression on me from last summer’s E3 event. I remembered the game for it’s gorgeous vistas, the lush environments, the mystery, and that cute little turtle that is picked up about halfway through the trailer.

While Firewatch came stocked with plenty of beautiful vistas and environments for me to explore, the mystery —arguably the heart of the story— fell completely flat for me.

I didn’t even find the turtle, either!

Firewatch begins with players catching up on the life of Henry, the protagonist of whom’s eyes you’ll be experiencing the game through. Since you’re locked into first-person for the entirety of the game, those of you who suffer from motion sickness, consider this your warning. As the story goes, Henry is a pretty average guy. His wife suffers from dementia and at such an early age the disease has taken a lot away from both his wife and Henry himself. In a rather odd decision (one that painted Henry as a coward, in my opinion) he abandons his wife with her family and decides to run away to play Forest Ranger for a summer.

It’s really tough to get me to care about a character who I consider a coward. Sure, I can come around over time, after the character has grown, learned from their mistakes, and so forth. But from beginning to end in Firewatch, Henry changes very little. By the end of the game, Henry felt as believable as the cardboard cutout of Forrest Byrnes that I found next to his watchtower. Henry behaved in ways that I found followed very little logic. One moment he was bravely breaking into an area mysteriously sealed off by the government, the next he was yelping about a little bumble bee.

Firewatch Review

Believability was further tarnished by flaws in the communications between Henry and Delilah the only other person that Henry has direct contact with. Their communications are handled through walkie-talkies and while the voice acting in Firewatch is the second best part of the game (right behind the gorgeous environments), there would be times when Henry would be using the push-to-talk feature when both of his hands were clearly engaged in other matters, or he would be talking to Delilah perfectly clear, even though he should be choking and coughing due to the thick smoke drifting through the area.

These little flaws wouldn’t be a bother if the game hadn’t already established itself as being so specific. In some sections I had to literally be looking at specific objects in order for the game to progress. If I have to specifically call in things I come across every time I come across them, yet later on I’m climbing up a cliff using both my hands on the rope yet can still use the push-to-talk walkie and am clearly speaking even though similar climbs promptly exhausted Henry (as witnessed in short little cinematic moments of huffing and puffing), it makes it obvious that Firewatch is inconsistent in how the game handles these things. That really nagged at me throughout my time with the game.

It may seem like I’m being nit-picky, and maybe I am, but that is entirely because I was really looking forward to Firewatch and it almost entirely disappointed me.

Firewatch Review

The forests were the game’s saving grace. As I hiked through Firewatch’s canyons, fields, and rivers, I couldn’t help but get lost in my own thoughts. I knew roughly where I was going so I just stuck to the path, checked the map and compass now and then to make sure I was headed in the right direction and hiked on. Early on, players will find a disposable camera that they can use to satisfyingly snap pictures of whatever they wish. The pictures come into play at the end of the game, but I suggest you snap pictures of anything you find particularly interesting.

I’d like to be more specific about the purpose of the photos, and the story as a whole, but I’d hate to ruin the little bit of suspense and surprise that the game has in store. All that I will say is that by the end I felt like the story was rushed. The mystery took a good amount of time to build up, and then it all quickly wrapped itself up far too convienently. However, at the very end, any sort of closure I felt was then undone by what I saw in the credits. So by the end of Firewatch I felt like I (as the player) had actually done very little.

Firewatch Review

Considering the whole point of me (as Henry) being out there was to figure out how to handle taking care of my sick wife, while keeping an eye out for brush fires, I felt like a complete failure as the player. There were two fires, but you only see smoke, you never actually see a flame, just the glowing ambient light reflecting off of the thick smoke at night. As I mentioned at the opening of the review, I didn’t see the turtle that is shown in the trailer, but I did see a raccoon, an oddly stationary duck, an elk, and a bumble bee, the latter two of which were part of a scripted events. For as rich and lush as the environments were, they were surprisingly (and disappointingly) vacant of living creatures.

Firewatch’s story ultimately fell flat for me. As much as I enjoyed strolling through the forests and taking pretty pictures of the scenery, the story is what drove the game forward, and unfortunately it tapered off in the final thirty minutes. My time with Firewatch ended with a bouquet of emotions. I was a little surprised it ended so suddenly, I was disappointed that it ended how it ended, I was frustrated by what I saw at the very end, and I was confused as to why this was a story that needed to be told.

Firewatch isn’t a bad game, I am sure many people will enjoy it as I did to an extent. Just don’t expect anything crazy and know that the game is very grounded in its reality. Which, like our own reality, can be disappointing.

Pros

  • Beautiful environments to trek through.
  • Great voice acting.

Cons

  • Story fell flat in the end.
  • Inconsistencies in elements.
  • Did not feel worthwhile.

 

A review copy of Firewatch was provided to IGM by the developer. Firewatch is available now for PC and PS4. Visit firewatchgame.com for more information.



IGM's Editor in Chief. Particularly enjoys games that let him break things. You can reach him at tom@indiegamemag.com or on Twitter: @tomscott90