It’s no secret that I’ve been massively hyped for developer Campo Santos’ debut game Firewatch. But while it certainly delivers some stellar atmospheric and narrative beats, it fails to follow through on the lofty expectations it had at first impressed.
The crux of Firewatch is the story of Henry, a volunteer fire lookout in Yellowstone, as he spends his summer in the quiet secluded forest with only a walkie-talkie to his supervisor Delilah for company. As the two explore each others’ pasts and slowly grow their relationship, a mystery of the forest unravels that has them questioning how isolated they truly are.
While the emphasis is on narrative, which I’m trying my best not to spoil, players control Henry as he makes his way around the forest running errands and uncovering answers. While the Shoshone National Forest is undoubtedly full of beautiful vistas and locales, there’s a host of problems holding it back and making me reserved in praising its splendour.
Though the game is of very short length, which is able to be completed in a single sitting, what at first feels like a sprawling, huge forest actually devolves a bit into a series of paths and trails that you’ll quickly grow familiar with as you find yourself backtracking repeatedly. Armed with a compass and map, Henry is frequently tasked with finding his way to certain objectives in the terrain, often asked to return to many of these same spots a few times in the short length.
Fortunately, I was able to see the suggestion of turning off the in-game option to point out the player’s spot on the map, forcing me to deduce my location by the surroundings and signs around me. This method of play greatly adds to the explorative nature and provides a bit of challenge to navigation, and it’s a wonder this option was kept in as a default at all. While this sense of discovery as you manage to make you way through the forest with this option turned off is fun and engaging at first, you’ll eventually come to the realization that the world isn’t as expansive or mysterious as first gleaned as you make long trips back to familiar settings, an understanding that will only come faster with the “You Are Here” option on the map.
While the pretty scenery is taken back a bit from the multitude of backtracking, the real hindrance is Firewatch’s performance. It seems to vary a bit from person to person, but in my own experience the game is technically a mess. Constant stuttering, framerate drops, and pop-ins make simply moving around the environment a challenge and a chore as the movement is frequently choppy and easily ripped me right out of the immersion the game was so clearly trying to implement.
Outside of visual hiccups, Firewatch seems terribly optimized for the PlayStation 4, with reports of game-breaking glitches impeding progress, freezing, and even crashing. In my own experience I’d had one freeze leading me to reboot the game, and the incredibly frustrating experience of becoming irreversibly trapped in the game’s geometry, leaving me no choice but to restart the entire game from the beginning. Simply put, this game should not have been released in this state for the PS4, and it’s inexcusable how unfinished it is in terms of performance.
But really, it’s the story of Firewatch that had most everyone including myself interested. And for the most part, the narrative is what will keep players invested. The dialogue between the two characters is incredibly genuine, full of charm, humour, and insight. Both characterizations are brilliantly realized and this is by far some of the most down-to-earth and earnest video game writing I’ve known. The dialogue is only bolstered by top-notch performances by the voice actors of both Henry and Delilah, who’s chemistry allows them to play off each other enough to support the entirety of the game. There is of course a dialogue option system, which while not incredibly meaningful to the overall narrative, does help to give players some urgency and input in the conversations throughout.
However, while the characters and relationship is seamless, the main story that strings them along is unfortunately anticlimactic. The two narratives of the characters’ personal paths and the mysteries of the forest are at first very captivating and intriguing as the game progresses, but ultimately wraps up in a very sudden and unsatisfying manner. The conclusion feels disappointingly rushed after the huge amounts of slow anticipation and tension delivered throughout much of the game, and really would have benefited from another hour or two of game-time to fully flesh it out.
Sadly, Firewatch is a game of unfulfilled expectations. The environment and aesthetic which is at first fun to explore and pleasing to behold is held back by both gameplay and technical limitations. While the narrative is for the most part very strong and memorable, more than enough to make up for the gameplay, even this leads to an unexpectedly dissatisfying conclusion, which goes in some directions that I don’t feel exactly worked in retrospect, while almost completely dropping other loose ends.
These aside, I would still be able to recommend the game as a unique and mostly engaging experience if not for the incredibly poor performance. Anyone interested in the game shouldn’t cross it off their list just yet, but absolutely wait until these issues are solved through patches to ensure a less frustrating and more immersive experience, a recommendation that I am fully aware is sadly too frequent these days.
The state of Firewatch on PS4 as of its launch is intolerable and I’m shocked at the amount high praise the game is receiving despite this. Is the industry so hypocritical as to publically shame big games like Assassin’s Creed: Unity that ship unfinished while turning a blind eye towards smaller but equally poorly optimized games? Ethics aside, Firewatch is a decent game only made more disappointing by its failed potential to be a brilliant one.