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 Paddle faster, I hear banjos…

Campo Santo, a self-proclaimed “scrappy” development team based in San Francisco, has ignited the gaming world with their piping hot debut title; Firewatch.  Set in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, after the devastating Yellowstone fires of 1988, the game follows the journey of Henry, a burly middle-aged male, who has recently retreated to an isolated fire watch tower to escape a chain of events that have left him heartbroken.

The introduction to the game invites you to re-live a series of chapters from Henry’s life, all of which involve a young professor named Julia, the woman who will be your wife.  Set in Boulder, Colorado between 1975 and 1988 - you, the player, make choices in the text which result in slight changes to the course of Henry and Julia’s relationship.  After a few cheery and charming decisions like what to name your dog and which silly pose to pull for a sketch, you make a tragic discovery.  This is sure to stir your emotions and leads to a steady decline in your relationship with Julia with the end of the introduction revealing that Henry has left Boulder and found a job as a fire lookout.

Julia’s sketch of Henry. A decision made by the player determines how he poses for her drawing.

Following the introduction, the game is entirely first-person and through exploration of the stunningly rendered National Forest, you uncover clues which unravel a sequence of mysterious events with sinister implications.  You, however, are not alone in your endeavours despite your remote location.  Henry’s adventure is guided by his sole contact with the outside world, Delilah.

Delilah is a woman, similar in age who is employed as his supervisor and who, as a disembodied voice on the other end of a walkie-talkie becomes Henry’s co-star in this curious escapade.  The dynamic relationship between the distant companions is shaped by a number of dialogue options that range from cheeky banter to sombre confessions and heartfelt exchanges that are paved by your decisions.  Though wandering through the forest tuned into the naturalistic sounds of the woodland can be a very tranquil exercise, the dialogue between Henry and Delilah is incredibly well written and breaks up the journey between points nicely.  Rich Sommer (Madmen) and Cissy Jones (Life is Strange) breathe life into their roles as the protagonists of Firewatch and the conversations between the pair flow naturally, adding eloquently to the core of a pleasantly immersive experience.

Henry chats to Delilah from the comfort of his tower.

In addition to the voice acting, is a wonderful soundtrack that ties in with significant events throughout the game’s narrative and moulds the ambience perfectly.  This soundtrack is available at a discounted price when bundled with the game itself but is also available as a stand alone product. The soundtrack contains nineteen independent tracks and is certainly worth purchasing for fans of the rather dark and distinctly emotive score.

A supply cache located near Jonesy Lake

Firewatch has an excellent control mechanism that accommodates fledgling gamers and experts alike.  The smooth motions, whether you stick with mouse and keyboard or take advantage of the game’s full controller support, make traversing lush meadows and scaling shifting shale a breeze for Henry as long as he has the right gear equipped.

Unfortunately, a glitch in the game can see Henry stuck in place between trees or on rock formations which means that your save file will become unrecoverable, possibly resulting in hours of game-play being rendered useless.  After minutes of frustrating key bashing it became clear that there is no way to rectify this bug and unless you have a recent save file prior to the glitch you will have to start again from the very beginning in order to continue playing.  This was a very disappointing error and it seems that several people have complained to developers about the issue occurring in various areas in the game.  Firewatch is such an enthralling game that despite this dispiriting halt in game-play you will be drawn to continue Henry’s journey through the Wyoming wilderness.

Henry watches the horizon in Shoshone National Forest

Save your game at every opportunity to avoid a major data loss if your character becomes stuck.  There is no alternative solution for such issues, however glitches are to be expected from a brand new game and shouldn’t be held against Firewatch.  It is clear that an enormous amount of work has gone into making the game what it is and there is no doubt that Campo Santo will act to rectify issues with game-play as soon as they possibly can.

Campo Santo has made a phenomenal debut and should be closely watched in the future.  If Firewatch is only the beginning for this creative team then it is reasonable to predict that the sky’s the limit for the Californian developers.

Verdict

Ultimately, Firewatch is a pleasurable experience that takes place in a remarkable environment which leaves a lasting impression.  Unfortunately, at its current price of USD 19.99 (AUD 28.12) the game’s level of content leaves much to be desired.  Early and mid-game set a blazing trail of mystery and adventure that is abruptly doused by the lacklustre ending that seemed somewhat forced, even rushed in the conclusion.  The development of the puzzling plot is thrilling but the bait and switch finale may leave you feeling somewhat cheated.  Others may relish the unforeseen result but either way, Firewatch is an aesthetically imposing adventure that is enriched by outstanding voice acting, an exceptional script and a quirky narrative that craft the foundation of a gaming experience that deserves enormous praise despite its flaws.