It pains me to say it but I hate Firewatch. There are many games that I’m not a fan of, or that I dislike, but Firewatch is one of the few games that I actually hate. I don’t hate it because it’s bad, I hate it because it feels like a game which was rushed and ultimately fails to live up to the potential that it establishes early on. I started my first Firewatch play session full of excitement and intrigue but a mere four hours later I found myself dumbfounded watching the credits roll, wishing for both my time and money back.
I could list of at least two dozen reasons why Firewatch was both a bad game and a bitter disappointment, but for the sake of this article I will only focus on my top 10 reasons.
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In Firewatch you play as Henry, a glorified Park Ranger who is employed to keep an eye out for fires and investigate shady activities in a Wyoming National Forest. Throughout the game you are given objectives by your Superior Delilah, whose sarcastic humour and witty banter never fails to entertain. The problem is, the mission themselves are as dull as the autumn leaves that populate sections of the environment.
Your first mission is to investigate the use of fireworks which are strictly prohibited in the forest. This is the only memorable mission in the entire game. As Henry isn’t able to do much other than run, jump, climb and follow a compass, he isn’t equipped to deal with any sort of problems or puzzle solving. Therefore the game simply doesn’t present you with any obstacles or challenges. Each mission simply requires you to walk from Point A to Point B, with an occasional Point C thrown in to spice things up a bit. Thankfully Delilah constantly chimes in via walkie-talkie as you wander between points, but this doesn’t change the fact that the all you’re essentially doing is walking.
The main hook in Firewatch presents itself after you discover that a mysterious person (or persons?) has been stalking you around the island, monitoring your every movement and even tapping into your conversations with Delilah. The problem is, since your character doesn’t harvest any dark secrets or discuss anything private or of real importance with Delilah, there wasn’t much in place to make me overly concerned about this “sinister” stalker. Sure it’s an invasion of Henry’s privacy, but with no real consequences at stake I couldn’t help but pity the fool who spends their time watching me do nothing other than walk.
The Powerful Opening
Without spoiling too much, the opening segment of Firewatch is fantastic. The game does an exceptional job detailing Henry’s past which helps you to understand much of his motivations going forward. I felt heavily invested in Henry and wanted him to find absolution before I even saw his face or heard his voice. He was a broken man and I wanted to fix him. Sadly, by the end of the game none of Henry’s internal issues are resolved and his past is almost inconsequential. This would be fine if there was some sort of message about “the harsh realities of life” attached, but instead it felt like a chunk of the game was simply missing.
As a game reviewer myself, I am never up in arms about review scores. I’m not one to infer that a reviewer is biased or that game publishers have handed money under the table in order to climb the ranks on Metacritc. I understand that reviews are the sole opinions of a single person and as opinions are subjective, they can never truly be right or wrong. I do however take issue with reviews failing to address or focus on many of Firewatch’s weak points. The biggest and only real draw of Firewatch is the game’s narrative and almost every review I’ve read has touched on how poorly the story conclusion is handled (more on that later). Now maybe I’m missing something here but a story based game which has a disappointing story should not be receiving scores as high as 93% or 98%.
My high expectations for the game’s ending is the sole reason I endured trudging through the mundane gameplay and without a satisfying story arc I find it hard to call Firewatch anything other than a fundamentally bad game. I may disagree with it, but definitely check out The Koalition’s review here.
Firewatch presents an illusion that players have vast forest to explore but in reality the landscape is just a string of hard to distinguish paths with trees surrounding them acting as borders. Almost every time I would diverge from these paths, whether purposely or accidentally, the result would be me becoming lost, stuck or disorientated.
It was also never clear which sections of the environment Henry can or cannot navigate through which made exploring a pain. Sometimes he could climb atop a 5ft rock, other times he’d be incapable of hopping over a much smaller rock. Sometimes he could easily cross through creeks and other waters beds, in other sections he can’t. Sometimes he can walk along collapsed trees which act as shortcuts and sometimes… well, you get the picture! I became lost more times than I could count playing Firewatch and couldn’t help but think this was a cheap ploy to artificially extend the game’s length. This made me constantly second guess myself at every turn. Even when I knew exactly where I was and where I needed to be, I felt compelled to continually refer to my map for reassurance. Speaking of which…
Using the Map
Using the map sucks! It sucks almost as much as using a real map. I can only assume that this was intentional but it doesn’t make it suck any less. Pushing up on the D-Pad equips your map and compass which appear as physical items in Henry’s hands. For some reason (which I’ll chalk up to fear of paper cuts), Henry’s cannot run or answer his walkie-talkie while holding his map. Given the game’s tendencies to have me take wrong turns and end up stuck behind a trees, I would have loved to keep my map visible as I sprint between locations but alas, this was not possible.
You’ll collect several new items during your journey in Firewatch. Some items, like ropes, are essential to your progression however you’ll also obtain many useless items like a flashlight and disposable camera which you are never given a reason to use. Likewise, you can also “update your maps” by finding new maps pieces I failed to find any benefits to doing so. On face value these are not major issues but as a whole they do add to the impression that Firewatch is only a portion of the game that the developers intended it to be.
I’m all for short, story based games. In fact, now that I’m a father and have a full-time job the shorter the game, the better! When it comes to campaign lengths I would gladly choose 6 hours over 60 hours and if the game is good enough to warrant it, I would be more than happy to pay $60 for the privilege. However in terms of quality, Firewatch is more Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture than Gone Home which makes paying $20 (approx. $5 per hour) nothing short of a rip-off. If it was 10 bucks I would have maybe said “buy with caution” but at $20 you should definitely steer clear of this fire.
According to my trophy list, I have played over 100 games on PS4. The common thread between all of those games is that they all run better than Firewatch. During my 4 hour playthrough I encountered stuttering, freezing, hard crashes, I’ve fallen through the world, I’ve become stuck behind trees and the frame rate has been as inconsistent as Kanye West’s album title. It’s a true shame because the Olly Moss art direction is absolutely gorgeous but it’s hard to appreciate the visuals once you’re forced to restart from a checkpoint after clipping through the environment for the third time. The PC version is said to run a lot better (sans some stuttering issues) but on the PS4, Firewatch is a mess.
The Story’s Conclusion
Storytelling 101: If you don’t give me a reason to care about a character, do not expect their demise to resonate me with in any meaningful way. Firewatch makes the classic mistake of shifting focus away from the characters that you care about and on to ones you hardly know during the final moments of the game, and the ending falls completely flat because of it. The game’s conclusion was weak, unsatisfying and felt entirely rushed which is inexcusable given the game’s short run time. Playing through Firewatch felt like suffering through an average meal at an ice cream parlour just so you could have dessert afterwards, only to find out that the dessert is a burnt version of the same meal you just ate but with sour cream and a cherry on top. Needless to say, I would not recommend it on Yelp.
This really sucks for me because Firewatch is a game that I desperately wanted to like, created by a team of people whom I already like. The voice acting is fantastic and the lush Olly Moss designed environments are incredibly pleasing to the eye. It’s just a shame that the “game” surrounding it feels broken (at least on the PS4), half finished and way overpriced. If Firewatch was simply a bad game [COUGH] Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture [COUGH], I would have simply uninstalled it and continued on with my life. However the powerful opening followed by wasted potential absolutely infuriates me about Firewatch. I know I’m very much in the minority here but I hate this game.