Say what you will about the walking simulator genre, but it’s here to stay, and exists as a sign of the continual evolution of modern video games. Now, an industry that once used text-driven experiences to convey narrative can do so in stunningly realistic worlds with story-driven effects. As a result, narratives that would have never succeeded in a more traditional type of video game can now be delivered in a way that emphasizes the experience over anything else.
Being that it’s a newer genre, and a niche one to boot, the aptly titled walking simulator still has a lot of room to grow, and surely will do so in the coming years. Even so, it isn’t without its early standouts, including games like Dear Esther: Landmark Edition – which is both haunting and beautiful – and Campo Santo’s much talked-about Firewatch.
You’ve likely heard about it, given the buzz it received when it launched on PlayStation 4 and PC not so long ago, but if not here’s the gist. Firewatch is a perfectly titled first-person experience, which relies on narrative over anything else. In it, you play as Henry, a bearded forty-something who’s lost his way in life and is trying to find it through an unordinary new job. That is, a role as an observer in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, which is quite the departure from his home in Boulder, Colorado.
“It’s not a long game, but its length is fitting, and it never overstays its welcome.”
Henry has been through the ringer, though, and taking this job is his way of escaping familial issues. You see, before he and his wife (Julia) were able to have children, or even enjoy their middle-age, the poor woman was stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s. Somehow, it hit her early and hit her hard, developing prior to her fortieth birthday and becoming so bad that she began to have issues recognizing her own husband.
Told through a handful of text-based sequences, almost all of which offer decision-based choices, this unfortunate and rather sad story plays out at the beginning of the game. It starts at a bar, where the two meet thanks to the help of alcohol, and carries through their relationship, factoring in decisions such as which type of dog to get and whether or not children are in the couple’s immediate plans.
Of course, no matter what you choose, the ending is always the same: Julia gets sick, her husband does what he can and feels is right, and her family ends up taking her back to Australia, where she was originally from. Grieving his lost love and unsure of how to proceed, Henry looks for a way to escape and finds it in a newspaper-based job ad. Unfortunately for him, though, the escape he seeks isn’t in the cards.
After the story is introduced, we take control of our burly protagonist and usher him up a rocky path towards his home for the summer. It’s the beginning of the season in 1988, you see, and he’s signed up for a long haul, wherein he’ll have to regularly scan his section’s tree line for any sign of a forest fire or related hazard. It’ll be a solitary affair, mostly spent inside of a lookout tower that stands above everything around it…or so he thinks.
I can’t say a whole lot about the rest of Firewatch’s plot, because, as you can imagine, it’s easy to spoil. After all, this is a narratively focused game that uses basic gameplay mechanics like walking, sprinting, climbing and rappelling to send its main character from one point of its relatively large map to another. All I will say is that something truly isn’t right in the Shoshone National Forest.
Thankfully for his sake, Henry isn’t alone in the woods, and has someone to lean on when the going gets weird. A lady named Delilah, who’s watched the nearby region of woodland for over a decade, acts as the player’s friend, boss and confidante. She helps by giving directions and offering hints, but is a strange character herself, who seems to be hiding something. She’s all that we have, though, and she certainly likes to talk.
From start to finish, Firewatch should take you between three and four hours to complete. It’s not a long game, but its length is fitting, and it never overstays its welcome. Of course, getting lost in the dense woods, or looking for secrets, can artificially lengthen your completion time. The same is true of a trusty disposable camera that Henry finds early on. Despite having been left to the elements for three years, it somehow still works, and allows the player to snap about 20 personal photographs during his or her journey. Those photos – which can end up being quite beautiful, given how nice looking and serene this game’s world happens to be – are then shown during the credits sequence.
Before you begin, though, it’s important to make sure that you’re familiar with orientation and how to use both a map and a compass. Although Delilah will occasionally help by telling you where to go, those two aids will become your best friends. It can be easy to get lost in the woods – at least until you’ve travelled the same trails a few times – so knowing how to orienteer is an absolute must.
“That being said, Firewatch is not a difficult game. So long as you keep an eye on where you’re going and don’t walk in random directions, you should be fine.”
That being said, Firewatch is not a difficult game. So long as you keep an eye on where you’re going and don’t walk in random directions, you should be fine. Campo Santo has created an interesting and involved campaign that both keeps you on your toes and keeps you busy as you spend almost eighty days in near isolation. Not to mention one that offers some handholding, and wants you to experience its narrative more than it aims to test you.
Playing through this Xbox One port was particularly easy for me, because I very recently completed the PlayStation 4 version of the game. In fact, it was less than a week between my playthroughs, which worked out well for this review, especially since (due to my Internet acting up) I was unable to patch the PS4 version before playing. As such, I experienced both console iterations of Firewatch in their launch states.
If you’ve been following this game at all, or happen to have played it on PS4, then you’ll know about the performance issues that hampered it at launch. I experienced my fair share of them last week, including a moment where I became stuck and couldn’t do anything (let alone pause and reload), as well as a time where I turned around and fell into oblivion. The framerate was the most troublesome, though such problems don’t bother me as much as certain others.
Still, playing through launch state Firewatch on PlayStation 4 wasn’t an ideal experience. The good news, however, is that the Xbox One version is more polished and less problematic. Yes, it still has framerate issues, with frequent hitches while running and exploring the local woodlands, but it doesn’t seem to have any nasty glitches. That’s a good thing, and shows that Campo Santo put work into refining what they’d already released for its second go around on current-gen consoles.
This Xbox One port also boasts additional features, outside of extra achievements. There’s an audio tour, which features developer discussion about a myriad of different topics, and can be listened to by choice, through appropriately placed cassette tapes. On top of that, there’s also a free roam mode, for those who’d like to take a leisurely walk through this colourful, artistic and cartoon-esque representation of Shoshone National Forest, without having to worry about anything.
In conclusion, this is a definite step up from what PlayStation 4 owners received not too long ago. While Firewatch for Xbox One still carries familiar framerate hitches and occasional visual oddities forward, it’s a notable improvement over the launch of its predecessor. And, with such striking visuals and great voice acting, it’s certainly worth your time and money, so long as you don’t go in expecting an amazing twist ending.
**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with**
- Stunning art direction and visuals
- Interesting narrative
- Unlike almost every other game
- Very good voice acting
- Lots to explore
- Framerate problems
- Slightly glitchy
- The final twist lacks intensity
- Doesn’t offer much replay value