Slow Burn – “Firewatch” Review

Developer Campo Santo’s indie debut greeted me with a gut punch and had me on the edge of my seat until the credits rolled. 

In Firewatch, you play as Henry, a well-to-do middle-aged man who’s at a personal crossroads. To get away from the tatters of his former life, Henry volunteers to watch for fires one summer in the Colorado Rockies. As you watch for signs of smoke and chat with fellow volunteers, it becomes apparent an unknown entity is watching you.

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Gameplay takes the backseat in Firewatch. With a small open-world and decision-making structures similar to what one might find in TellTale games, Firewatch feels much more like a playable movie than a video game. Thankfully, the real meat of the game, the story, is fantastic.

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Navigation was easily Firewatch’s biggest gameplay challenge

Still, I won’t go any further with story details here because Firewatch hosts some insane thrills, particularly in the middle of the game, that I’ve rarely experienced from video games that you must experience for yourself.

In that respect, Firewatch is a rare gem. You can tell the story, the engrossing visuals and even the audio was made with love. When you play Firewatch, it’s clear you’re playing someone’s passion project.

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My time with the game didn’t leave me without some criticisms. First off, Firewatch’s story asks so many questions and is genuinely terrifying, yet the payoff doesn’t feel satisfying. It felt as though the writer was about to take the story to wild, uncharted territory and backed down into a much milder, albeit decent, conclusion.

The story also struggles with pacing. Because Firewatch takes place over an entire summer, the short four-hour story jumps around quite a bit. Some days will take upwards of a half hour to complete while others take a literal minute. In between days, there was a period where a month passed by from the last playable day and the current one. While it doesn’t hurt the story to spread the course of events out over a series of months, it felt somewhat jarring and rushed at times.

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There’s also some bizarre performance problems. I’ve been told the PC version performs well with the right specs, but my PS4 copy of Firewatch suffered some severe performance issues at rather unusual moments. Looking at a pile of rocks while rappelling? Framerate loss. Staring over a wide, detailed expanse? Steady framerate. While this was far from a game-breaking flaw, the PS4 version is decidedly inferior when it comes to performance.

The Verdict

Below the surface-level thrills, the story that supports Firewatch’s events are rarely talked about in games. There is so much character development and real-world emotion in the game’s opening moments that it’s damn near impossible to put the game down once you start.

Despite some annoying performance issues on console and a story that doesn’t fully reach its potential, this is still the best indie game I’ve played this year. Firewatch will genuinely make you feel, and that’s something worth celebrating.

4:5

 

Firewatch was reviewed on PS4 using a press copy courtesy of Campo Santo.

For more on how Bear Claw Gaming score games check out the official score policy.

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