Firewatch – Review

Title   Firewatch
Developer  Campo Santo
Publisher  Panic
Platform  Windows PC, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4
Genre  Adventure
Release Date  February 9th, 2016
Official Site

Caution: Spoilers ahead.

firewatchrev1Everyone enjoys a bit of escapism. A chance to get away from things a little and indulge in some daydreaming. Firewatch, at its core, is about escapism. Set in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989, we follow middle-aged Henry as he begins his summer job as a fire lookout in an attempt to get away from a difficult situation at home. It’s a fantasy that more than a few of us can relate to.

Firewatch opens by giving the history of Henry’s relationship with his wife, and the circumstances that have led to him taking up this lonely post in the woods. You are offered a degree of choice through a sort of choose-your-own adventure style segment, which allows you to influence Henry’s history and shape the kind of man he is. While these decisions may not have a direct impact on the narrative of the game they do give a bit of context, and they definitely influenced the dialogue choices I made throughout. It’s in these opening moments that Firewatch excels.


The slow pacing is perfect for what is essentially a hiking montage and although you are given a large amount of exposition it never feels like too much to swallow. It’s also a showcase of the game’s fantastic art direction, which has clearly been inspired by old American national park promotional posters with an almost cartoony style and super-saturated colours. This results in environments and vistas that are really spectacular to wander through, and I often found myself simply stopping and having a look. About an hour into the game a disposable camera becomes available which really does encourage you to stop and enjoy the environments while taking a few snaps. The photographs you take are displayed in a montage during the credits and you can even buy physical copies that will be sent to you in the post, which I thought was a really nice touch.

firewatchrev3Once arriving at his watchtower and home for the summer Henry receives a call on his walkie talkie from his new supervisor, fellow fire lookout and the deuteragonist of the game, Delilah. She starts speaking and this is where Firewatch really begins to shine. Firewatch’s dialogue is simply exceptional. Very strong voice performances are backed up by two of the most believable characters in gaming alongside what is, for the most part, a natural and genuinely funny script. Both characters carry a charisma that makes them immediately likeable and despite the natural emergence of their flaws throughout the game’s narrative they remain relatable right until the end.

During dialogue you are given a list of possible responses that they may choose from, if you have played Telltale Games’ Walking Dead, Game of Thrones etc then you will be familiar with this system. These dialogue choices don’t seem to have any real impact on the point-to-point development of the narrative but instead allow you a degree of control over Henry and will shape how you contextualise events.

Your time in Firewatch will be spent wandering through the area surrounding Henry’s lookout tower, following instructions given by Delilah and using your map and compass to find your way. There is also an option to hide the player’s position on the map, which will add a bit of a challenge (and gave me some Vietnam-esque flashbacks to high school orienteering). However, occasionally Firewatch’s gameyness will get in the way, breaking the flow and damaging the pacing with repetitiveness. This is mostly noticeable in the frequent abseiling segments which manage to turn periods of calm into tediousness. Despite this, the hiking is, for the most part, rewarding and its slow pace allows you to really soak in both the voice acting and the wonderful environments.


Strange happenings and odd occurrences in the forest lead away from the quiet and reserved first act into what grows to become a mystery thriller. This shift in tone may at first seem out of place, however, using a thriller plot to emphasise the core themes of the narrative is not without merit; Gone Home found success by using a similar genre shift, baiting players by using horror tropes to give the real-world nature of the narrative more weight. Putting the two characters through a stressful situation driven by their paranoia and desperate need for something to distract them from the reality of their lives is, in itself, a great idea. It’s an idea that should allow greater exploration of these characters and could be used very successfully to frame the core theme of escapism. This all would be great if Firewatch didn’t stumble in its execution. A final act, which seems intent to sprint towards the finish without allowing room to breathe, brushes over important plot points, and sees both Delilah and Henry become reserved and seemingly uninterested by events. This culminates in an unsatisfying conclusion that fails to reach any real resolution in its plot. The characters’ change in perspective and their realisation that they must face the realities of their lives seems too sudden and unnatural – this is particularly grating since they have been such well-realised characters up until this stage .

firewatchrev5At points Firewatch seems at odds with itself. It struggles to find the balance between its character-driven moments of introspection, its themes of escapism and loneliness, and its urge to tell an almost X-Files style mystery story. As events become more suspicious and the threat to the characters becomes greater the introspection and quiet moments that had felt so perfect earlier in the game begin to feel out of place. The shift to a thriller plot could have worked well but the seemingly rushed conclusion instead results in a game of two halves that fail to mesh together. Neither half is bad by any means, but as a complete entity Firewatch is an unsatisfying experience that fails to succeed entirely as either a quiet walk in the woods or as a paranoia driven thriller.

  • Brilliant voice acting and script
  • Beautiful art direction
  • Great moments of introspection
  • Rushed third act and uneven plot

Despite an uneven plot, Firewatch is still worthy of acclaim. The quiet moments of introspection, the beautiful art direction, and chiefly the strong voice performances are all outstanding and more than worthy of recognition.

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