Developer Campo Santo’s first game, “Firewatch”, does something rarely seen in the world of video games – it makes a truly mature, story eccentric, experience with no visceral violence to be had. What brings the game down a notch isn’t the exclusion of such things, but rather some of the more technical elements. The game successfully tells an emotional story with a unique graphical style, while using a first person perspective to hammer home a sense of isolation and the vulnerability one can truly feel when alone in the elements.
It’s the summer of 1989. You play as Henry (voiced by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), a man whose marriage has gone through an unfortunate disaster. To escape the pain and hardship of his everyday life, Henry decides to take a job as a Firewatch ranger in the Colorado mountains. Human life is scarce in these woods and the only regular contact you have is through a radio with your boss, Delilah (Cissy Jones). She sends you on errands and the two of you talk at various moments, trying to get to know each other. Errands include such things as warning skinny-dipping teens about the dangers of setting of fireworks and finding the end of a downed phone-line. This is the name of the game, until you find out that someone’s following you. The contextual dialogue trees while having these conversations provide the game’s most fast-paced gameplay. Exploring, with your trusty map and compass, and interacting with different items provide the bulk of the roughly four-hour mystery.
The game is a real looker, with a style that’s a mixture of impressionist painting and Pixar inspired designs. The few humans you do come across are cleverly kept at a distance and in silhouette. Movement is smooth, though it is sometimes slowed by loading and there is some minor pop-in in the PS4 version. Also, sometimes seeing things at a distance can be a problem, as certain elements may not load entirely properly. The fact that you can see your own torso, arms, and legs, as you move almost totally makes up for it. Between loosely deciding what to say as Henry and only seeing through his eyes, it’s not hard to empathize and, at times, fear for him.
The writing is the real star of the show. Henry and Delilah’s interactions help flesh out these characters and the relationship they build throughout the story, which is partially up to the player, makes these characters as real as those in a really good book or movie. The mystery unwraps in an unusual, but satisfying way.
Some oddly placed invisible walls may be annoying when roaming, but this is the best use of virtual scenery-chewing in this gamer’s memory. Rolling hills of trees and jutting rocks pop with color as the sun sets on the horizon, painting everything in vivid yellows and reds. Hopping over rivers and cautiously crossing dangerous cliffs across downed trees feels harrowing and fun. “Firewatch” may not be a wholly unique idea, but its great characters and beautiful graphics are plenty of incentive to give it a chance.
My rating: A-
“Firewatch” is developed and released by Campo Santo. It is available for PC, Mac, Linux and Playstation 4. It is rated M for Mature for: suggestive themes, nudity, drug and alcohol reference, and strong language.
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