The first thing you should know about Firewatch is that it’s every bit as beautiful as you imagined. First-time developer Campo Santo has spent two years teasing us with screenshots of a lustrous, tangerine-soaked wilderness to explore, and it’s certainly come good on this promise.
You’re going to want to get lost in the forests of Wyoming, however foreboding that idea may seem.
Unfortunately, this beauty comes at a cost. After strolling through Firewatch in one sitting I couldn’t help shake a feeling of disappointment. For all its storytelling chops, this game is like a second-hand tome from your local charity shop. Brilliant in part, but tatty round the edges.
Adventure is out there
Let's start with the good: Campo Santo hasn't pulled any punches with Firewatch. Since unveiling the game back in 2014 the team have been proud to talk-up the fact that it's, above all else, a narrative experience. Think of it as Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture with the apocalypse bit cut out.
One of the first things you’ll pick up on, when you’re not melting into the lucid Wyoming sunset, is that Firewatch is almost entirely devoid of anything resembling traditional video game mechanics. Aside from hitting button prompts to shimmy down shale cliffs, secure ropes, clamber over rocks, and manhandle pinecones, there’s not all that much to do – except revel in your isolation.
While that's a testament to the studio's commitment to delivering a pure, story-driven experience, it also means that Firewatch lives and dies on its narrative. If you fail to identify with either of the game's two characters in those first few minutes, you'll soon come down with a severe case of buyer's remorse.
Voices on the radio
You'll be glad to know then, that the game’s leading duo are fully-realised in both their flaws and strengths. Writer-director team Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, who you might recognise as the double act that oversaw the critically acclaimed first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead series, really have outdone themselves this time around.
Henry, a man who retreats to Yellowstone when life ceases to make sense, and Delilah, his equally troubled supervisor, are relatable because they've made mistakes. Unlike most protagonists in video gaming, they're vulnerable too.
Taking place over 79 days, Firewatch is just a small slice of their tale, a brief window into the regretful lives of others. That's what makes it so compelling - although it doesn't hurt that Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones steal the show by delivering a pair of nuanced, natural performances that are nothing short of phenomenal.
It's clear that both voice actors had a tonne of fun with their characters. Every spoken line, whether it’s an off-hand remark, witty retort, or pivotal plot point, is delivered with an infectious zeal that's impossible to ignore.
Welcome to Wyoming
When you're not caught up in the lives of others, you'll no doubt be staring slack-jawed at the world around you.
To say that Firewatch is a looker is akin to claiming that Novak Djokovic has a passable forehand and British trains have issues with their timeliness. Campo Santo's breezy, fluid art style is so captivating that we can't help but feel compelled to pack our bags, rent a bright red pick-up, and set up shop in our own rickety watchtower.
The fact that we live in England, have the combined survival skills of a lemming, and haven't successfully used a compass since, well, ever, means that (probably) isn't about to happen. Even if we did make make the trip, we doubt the real-world version of Wyoming could measure up to Campo Santo's dreamy, surrealist vision. As you explore the wilderness your ears will prick at the sound of the trees groaning beneath the wind, the soft birdsong breezing through the silence, and the quiet rustle of leaves dancing in the canopies above.
For all of its stylistic beauty, there's something profoundly real about Campo Santo's version of Yellowstone; a sense of blissful solitude that awakens your most personal, escapist desires.
The great outdoors
The grass, though, isn't always greener. And no matter how much we try, it's impossible to hide from Firewatch’s underlying troubles.
Although the world is stunning beyond compare, its beauty is hampered by all too regular texture pop-ins and frame rate drops that shatter the naturalistic illusion Campo Santo worked so hard to create. This more noticeable than you might think, too: my very first stroll through the woods was peppered with frame rate drops.
Even more frustratingly, the game’s explorable area is surprisingly small. You'll want to absorb every inch of detail in those eye-popping vistas, because you'll never see them up close. In choosing such a sprawling hinterland for their setting, Firewatch’s creators have been hoisted by their own petard.
This is especially the case if you take an early opportunity to stray from the beaten track. Soon enough, you'll be ambling back in that direction time and time again.
As for plot, it's something I haven't really touched on yet for fear of ruining the game. Firewatch's mystery has a definite payoff, but you'll take an unnecessarily convoluted path to that dramatic climax. Certain red herrings, such as the curious case of the missing campers, seem to only exist in order to stretch out the story, which isn’t a revelation we took kindly to.
That feeling of superficiality carries over to the game’s branching dialogue system, which asks you to build your own relationship with Delilah by answering her frequent quips and quibbles via a smorgasbord of radio responses. Whether you want to see if love blossoms in the wild or play as the strong, silent type, the choice is yours. The only downside is that those choices lack any real punch, and although they'll give you the chance to take a more personal journey, they'll do little to influence the wider narrative.
For all of its style and subtle charm, I can't hide the fact that Firewatch left me feeling a little empty. The game's flashes of greatness often work against it, shining a spotlight on its more obvious failings and forcing us to ask, "What if?"
What if Campo Santo has just tightened the screws that little bit more, added an extra layer of technical polish, and ensured every plot point served to drive the story towards a purposeful conclusion? The answer, of course, if we'd have a great game on our hands.
As it stands, we've simply got a good one. And, that’s OK. It's hard to stay mad at something as audacious and preposterously gorgeous as Firewatch. So grab your gear and head for the hills, because for better or worse, this is one journey you'll want to take.