Also On: PC
Publisher: Campo Santo
Developer: Campo Santo
I've never been what you'd call an outdoorsy person. I've never gone camping in my life. I've never been in a tent. I've gone hiking, like, once in my 35 years of living.
In other words, it doesn't take much for Firewatch to put me in an uneasy state of mind. You play as a forest ranger, Hank, isolated in the Wyoming wilderness, with nothing but a voice at the other end of a radio to keep you company. Between the overabundance of nature and the near-total lack of other people, we're already basically talking one of my nightmare scenarios, so it's not like Firewatch had that far to go in terms of getting me into the right mindset.
Even if I wasn't pathologically put off by the wild, however, I have a feeling Firewatch still would've had me feeling tense and nervous in no time. For one thing, it has a score that's perfectly suited for that purpose: hauntingly sparse guitar that wafts in and out of your consciousness, never quite resolving into an obvious melody, leaving you subconsciously unsure of what's coming next. Couple that with forest noises that sound ever-more-ominous as the story progresses, and you can see how Firewatch gets you off-kilter in that regard.
On top of that, the game has a setting that's conducive to creeping unease. Like I said, nature has never been my kind of thing, but I suspect that all but the most woodsy nature-lovers would find this empty Wyoming forest a little disconcerting. You never see any animals. People are something you experience either at a distance, over the radio, or via lost and forgotten mementos left behind. Even though you're equipped with a map and a compass, it's awfully easy to get lost amongst all the winding trails — and it doesn't get any easier as the game progresses and (spoiler, sort of) you have to deal with deteriorating weather conditions. All of this adds together to create a tense, claustrophobic environment — not the sort of atmosphere one usually associates with the great outdoors, but this shows that there's no contradiction.
Above all else, though, Firewatch has an amazing story. I don't want to say anything about it for fear of spoiling it, but I will say that this game's narrative carries more emotional heft than almost anything else I've ever played. When (again, kind-of-spoiler alert) a game hits you with the spectre of early-onset dementia just moments after you begin playing, you know you're in for dealing with topics that aren't usually broached by games, and that feeling carries itself all the way through to the game's conclusion.
In this respect, Firewatch is helped immensely by some pretty impressive voice acting performances. Considering that Rich Sommer (voicing Hank) and Cissy Jones (as Delilah) are essentially called upon to carry the entire plot on the strength of how well they read their lines, this game lives or dies on how well they fit into their roles — and the fact it lives and breathes and feels real is a testament to their successes. I don't usually notice the quality of voice acting in my games, so for me to notice it here should give you some idea of how strong both Sommer and Jones are in their roles.
Having said all that, Firewatch does have a few flaws. On PS4, at least, it occasionally stutters when you run for an extended period of time. In fact, the game once froze up on me entirely right at a crucial juncture near the end — which, aside from being annoying, wasn't so great for my nerves. It's not so terrible that the game is unplayable, but chances are you'll notice it, which means it's worth at least mentioning.
On top of that…well, I can't really get into it without spoiling the story. All in all, I think Firewatch tells you what it needs to in order to wrap its story up, but at the same time, I think it features a few red herring plot points that probably could've been left out. On the one hand, they add to the game's overall vibe, but on the other, everything else about Firewatch is so neatly put together, for there to be seemingly loose threads diminishes the effect ever-so-slightly.
But no more than slightly. Firewatch is strong enough in virtually every respect that it can afford to fall a little short of perfection here and there. That may be annoying to anyone who demands absolute perfection, but for everyone else, it means that this is an absolute must-buy.