Campo Santo’s exploration-driven title continues 2016’s trend of exceptional video game releases.

It’s been a long, hard road for me. I had so much, only to then lose it all at the hands of the rough-and-tumble world we find ourselves in. It hurts, man. It does. And to escape all of the emotion, the sadness, and the tears – I’ve decided to become a fire lookout in Wyoming. It should be pretty nice there. Hell, I think I might even bring my typewriter and get into a bit of writing, I’m looking forward to it. And all that I know, at least right now, is that I need to escape the shackles of this life.

Campo Santo have created a masterpiece in Firewatch. It’s a game that, above all else, rings true to so many strands and strings of life that we find ourselves pulling at and running from, and combines it all into a four-hour experience that’ll make you reflective of both your life, and Firewatch’s protagonist Henry’s.

Henry’s gone through a lot, and his decision to journey out into the woods of Wyoming is completely justifiable. I felt almost instantly connected with him, his motives, and his decisions thanks to the incredibly effective opening ten minutes, and this sense of connection generally rings true for the entirety of the game. From the moment you step out into the wilderness of Wyoming as a green, newbie fire lookout, you’re almost one with him – sharing in his experiences and his feelings.

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It’s not long after you set your things up at your lookout that you receive your first radio call. It’s Delilah, your boss – the only real contact you have while you’re out in the wilderness. Delilah is great, she’s nice, inquisitive, sarcastic… qualities I’m sure we’d all like with the only other human contact we’d have in a place like this. And then something happens, something strange. Your hand’s forced, and you’re to journey out into the wilderness to investigate. This is where your story begins.

The most striking thing about Firewatch is that it manages to convey a deep sense of solitude and isolation throughout Wyoming, which, funnily enough, heavily contrasts with how connected you feel with Delilah – who’s confined to just a voice coming out of a tiny, handheld radio.

Delilah accompanies you throughout your journey as a fire lookout, and the hundreds of conversations you share with her are shaped by your choices. The game allows you to choose what you say from a handful of dialogue options, and that has an impact on how Delilah converses with you and helps you in times of need. And while the main arc most definitely follows the same conversational path between you and Delilah, it’s the little things that really make Firewatch such a personal, emotionally-rich exploration game.

Most of your time in Firewatch is spent walking around Wyoming, exploring various creeks, chasms, and rivers. It’s an exploration game through-and-through, combining the exploration-based objectives of Gone Home and the dialogue choice of Telltale’s games. It’s an incredibly powerful way of telling a story, and by the game’s end I was so emotionally invested in this world, this tale, and this story that I felt like I’d given up something significant in my life when the credits rolled.

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This comes down to how excellent the writing and the interwoven dialogue choices are. There are times where you feel strands of anger, sadness, and sometimes a bit of both, and these choices are communicated in such a resonating, personal way, even while the options are limited to just three (or so) choices. It’s indicative of real life – there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to conversing, you simply explain your thoughts and how you actually feel and the world adapts around you. This is similar in Firewatch, as the conversations had with Delilah feel life-like. They feel like you’re conversing with a real person, not one ingrained inside a video game.

Much like other exploration-based video games, you don’t do much other than really explore in Firewatch. There are interactions to be had, of course, but don’t expect to do much in the way of fighting, questing, and the like. That’s all been scrapped for a fairly linear narrative-focused game, and the entire experience benefits from that. The only real detractor to this is that walking across Wyoming can be terribly arduous. Sometimes you’re tasked with walking all the way across the map to get to your next objective, and that can inevitably lead to getting lost or feeling frustrated at the halted progression of the game’s story. This gets even more frustrating when the narrative picks up and all you want to do is get to the next location as soon as possible.

While it may be arduous to make long-winded treks across Wyoming, I found that there was a reason for this, for making players explore. And that’s the sites and sounds of Wyoming. The wilderness is brilliantly crafted, and its beauty is reminiscent of what you’d see if you’d been out in the wilderness trekking about yourself. Campo Santo make effective use of the game’s surroundings to rope you in, from a sun-soaked canyon, to Jonesy Lake – Firewatch’s main attraction is the location itself, and it’s breathtaking.

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The game’s brilliant soundtrack only chimes in sporadically, too, and it’s purposely done to keep you in tune with the immersion created by your surroundings. The ambience of the wilderness is the main focus here, and hearing trees moving in the wind, ruffling bushes, and all sorts of different animals in the distance had me completely ingrained in the environment I’d been exploring for just a few short hours. There’s no need for artificial audio to overlap at all as the real focus sits within the wilderness itself, as well as the connection between both you and Delilah.

At its core, connection and relationships seem to be the underlying themes of Firewatch. And it’s fascinating to think that all of this is accomplished without ever having someone at your side, so-to-speak. There’s no face-to-face human interaction in Firewatch, yet it still manages to absolutely nail that feeling of connection and purpose. I felt completely in sync with this world, with Delilah, and with the task I’d been handed. I felt like I was Henry, escaping from the world I’d been completely crushed by. And that’s only something only the very best video games manage to convey – true, down-to-earth immersion.

Overall

Campo Santo have created a game that speaks on so many different levels emotionally. It’s not just about seeking friendship in isolation, but also looking at the relationships we share with each other and how important they are in our lives. It has a winding narrative that kept me intrigued from start to finish and left me with many thoughts to run through having completed it, even with a bit of an anticlimactic ending. Firewatch is, again, another brilliant example of how potent exploration-driven games can be, and I look forward to seeing this genre continue to grow. This one’s an incredible feat.

Developer: Campo Santo
Publisher: Panic
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4

Verdict
Beautiful settingGripping narrativeBrilliant, down-to-earth writingExcellent use of sound
Anticlimactic endingArduous walking at points
95%Overall