Firewatch is one of the most enthralling slices of entertainment I've ever experienced. For 5-6 hours you'll walk in the hiking boots of Henry, a likeable, slightly chubby man-with-a-beard in his late-30s. After a devastating, tragic development in his family life, Henry takes a job as a fire ranger in Wyoming, with the intention of sitting in a tower all summer, ostensibly watching for wildfires, but really pondering his next move in life. But thanks to the first-person viewpoint and multiple-choice dialogue options, it all feels like it's happening to you. And my goodness, how it sucked me in.
The whole point of Henry taking the job was to be alone with his thoughts, but there's very little of that. Instead, you're in constant radio contact with his boss – a lady in her early 40s named Delilah, and the two of you develop a rapport over the days and months of the summer. I'm not going to spoil the rest of the plot for you because it's something you need to experience for yourself. But I can at least tell you why it's so good.
The conversational dialogue between Henry and Delilah is brilliantly acted, certainly some of the best voicing I've ever heard in a game. There are some funny, goofy jokes which fit Henry's personality brilliantly, and the selection of responses have enough variety to make you feel like you're affecting the direction of the game, even if the outcome is carefully curated in order to maintain control of what you'll feel at any one time.
And you really will feel things. I don't mean that in a boring 'artsy indie game' kind of way. I mean proper nervousness, fear, intrigue and the best treatment of paranoia in any game ever. Is it justified? Well that would be telling. Suffice to say the sense of isolation in this middle-of-nowhere valley dials up all of these emotions past normal gaming levels and into genuine unease.
There's a turtle that you can adopt and name - I chose Turt Reynolds from the list of options because of course anyone would. I actually found two of them, which did live in the same box in the watchtower, but whether there are any more (or if you're supposed to find more than one) remains to be seen.
This is augmented by the sound design, which is superb. Beautiful incidental music kicks in when it's needed, adding immensely to the atmosphere and timeless nowhereness of this sun-baked valley. The team had some fun making the duck noises by the lake as I'm certain some of them are played for laughs, but subtle but deliberate sounds like rustles in the undergrowth panned hard left or right in the stereo mix will ring out like alarm bells in your head. Your senses will be heightened while you play Firewatch.
Naturally I was very disappointed to discover three (just three in the whole game) instances of poor continuity (two in the same area), where dialogue either repeated or introduced an object that had already been established and discussed. That sort of thing absolutely shatters the illusion of reality the game spends so long building up, but at least it is very, very rare. Mostly it's exemplary, and no mean feat considering the multiple dialogue options.
Hiking through lush, stylised vegetation, using only a map and a compass for navigation, you'll find that some paths are blocked with brambles or fallen bridges, and you get to access those later as you find new equipment. It's Metroidvania, of course, and probably the most videogamey element of the whole experience. But such elements of game design are a little too apparent.
The game is also surprisingly linear, funneling you towards specific points with a sense of urgency that means it doesn't feel right to stand around and admire the scenery. There are often two routes to whatever location you're meant to reach next, but you can't really deviate from them, resulting in a surprisingly small-feeling game that never really feels as big as the area it gives you to run around in. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but this is definitely a story-driven game, not an open-world sandbox.
Sadly there are some small problems to spoil what is otherwise an incredible experience. Technically, the PS4 version I played is sketchy, with stutters and pauses akin to those found in Oblivion as you moved from one area of scenery to another. The frame-rate's super smooth if you're looking at the sky, but it's noticeably inconsistent. Never a flickerbook, but not as slick as it could or should have been.
Some grass hovers above the ground, I found a weird teleportation bug, incorrect note text screens for the object I was holding, and suffered a load crash – all on finished code. Tiny gnats in the ointment, but gnats nonetheless. Also, while I appreciate I'll be in the minority with this particular view, while the art style is undoubtedly gorgeous, it might arguably have benefited from being more naturalistic (like Rise of the Tomb Raider's forest sections) to complement the realism of the audio. It's a tad cartoony. And at one point I even wondered if Henry was supposed to be tripping because everything was so… red. He wasn't. It was just red.
The criticisms sound bad but you'll understand why they don't matter. Firewatch is linear, short, gives the illusion of choice without ever really branching away from the core story and offers little in the way of replayability. But that's absolutely fine. This is the kind of game you simply have to play once. Like Journey. Yep, this is as good as Journey. Rougher, certainly, but just as shining an example of a game that does something different, does it superbly, and stays with you long after it's over. You'll never forget Firewatch.
This game was reviewed on PS4.