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 set up.
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 very short, able to be completed in a single sitting or two, what at first feels like a sprawling forest actually devolves into a series of paths and trails that you’ll quickly grow familiar with as you repeatedly backtrack. 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 too many times for its short length.
While this sense of discovery as you manage to make you way through the forest 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. Long trips back to familiar settings with an obvious “You Are Here” indicator on the map will only make this more obvious.
While the pretty scenery is reduced 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 on the PS4, the game is technically a mess. Constant stuttering, frame rate drops, and pop-ins make simply moving around the environment a chore. The movement is frequently choppy, ripping me right out of any immersion the game was so clearly trying to implement.
Aside from visual performance, in my own experience I’ve had the game freeze, forcing 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 scratch. 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 are meaningful, the main story that strings them along is unfortunately anticlimactic. Both narratives of the characters’ personal paths and the mysteries of the forest are at first captivating 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 through much of the game, and would have benefited from another hour or two to fully flesh it out.
Sadly, Firewatch is a game of unfulfilled expectations. The environment and its aesthetic, while initially fun to explore and pleasing to behold, are held back by both gameplay and technical limitations. The strength of the narrative, which is enough to make up for the gameplay at first, leads to an unexpectedly dissatisfying conclusion, ultimately goeing in directions I don’t feel worked in retrospect, while completely dropping more important 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.