Firewatch, a first person “walking simulator,” has been a curious little mystery title since its announcement, with devs Campo Santo keeping a great deal of the story under wraps. Even the many trailers dropped closer to the release date are very short, not betraying very much at all.
While “walking simulator” is the easiest way to class this adventure, it’s a disservice to the interactions you’ll be having with the Wyoming wilderness. Firewatch is one of the most fluid of its kind as you climb, rappel, and investigate the area you’re charged with protecting from the Two Forks Lookout. Of course, the job takes a turn quickly.
Firewatch is one of the most beautiful games to behold. Olly Moss, a designer and illustrator known for his incredible re-imagined movie posters, sculpted the style and visual direction for this game and it shines. The shadowy narrative that builds up throughout the game is a stark contrast to the bright and flush colors Firewatch is awash with, whether you’re wandering around in the height of day or the dark of night.
While the art carries a distinct, cartoonish style, it doesn’t break the intended immersion the developers go for. Your HUD is minimal and there’s no hand holding when it comes to exploring the area. You have a compass and map to guide you and, other than some notes scribbled around landmarks and a “you are here” type of icon, you’ll need to be become very familiar with Two Forks and remain aware of your surroundings. The incredible sound design coupled with these things will really make you feel like an employed ranger.
The driving force behind Firewatch is the dialogue and, thankfully, Campo Santo’s writers along with the lead actress and actor put on an absolute master class. You control Henry, a rookie ranger fresh on the job, as he converses with his supervisor and fellow ranger Delilah. Delilah has her own responsibility in a different part of the forest, so your interactions are limited to your walkie talkie and the occasional glance at her lookout in the far distance. Both voice actors exude personality that is somewhat malleable by the dialogue options you choose. Not answering is treated as a choice as well, eliciting a bit of ire from Delilah if you go quiet or miss a queue in a tense moment.
In the opening, Campo Santo does a good job breaking your heart into pieces with a minimalist series of text sprinkled in as you learn the controls. You make choices during this sequence that shapes the Henry you’ll be controlling and influences your relationship with Delilah as well. By game’s end, you’ll be so engrossed in the correspondence between Henry and Delilah that a simple missed connection in the final moments will cause your heart to drop. This is a testament to how the voice actors brought an authenticity to their roles that is leagues ahead of even the most engrossing voice performances.
The walkie talkie isn’t just Henry’s lifeline out in the wild, it’s the heart of Firewatch’s experience. Its importance will be lost on you during gameplay at times, but a couple moments of radio silence later in the story are immediately jarring and expedite the growth of a thick sense of dread. That hovering anxiety covers a narrative that is deeply emotional and adult. It deals with decisions and responsibilities that you don’t often find as centerpieces in a video game and won’t resonate with a player if they aren’t at a certain level of maturity.
Ultimately, Firewatch’s experience lives or dies on the story it wants to tell and, for 95% of the time, it is very engaging. Pacing is wonderful and every bit that unfolds about this mystery is interesting… until the very end that is. No spoilers, but the ending of Firewatch will leave you wanting when it comes to main narrative thread. The journey was obviously prioritized as opposed to the closer and there’s plenty that you won’t find in your first playthrough, but there’s a bit of disappointment as you hold out hope for some twist and the credits start to roll. Nevertheless, Firewatch is wonderful, painful, and heartfelt storytelling that is a steal at $18.
This review of Firewatch is based on a digital copy for the PC which was provided by the developer.