STAFF REVIEW of Firewatch (Xbox One)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016.
by Allya Venema

Firewatch Box art Firewatch is one of those rare Indie titles where you stop and pause every once in a while and think “this is an Indie?” "It doesn’t feel like one". In regards to Firewatch, it is a polished and attentively executed experience that also acts as a great palette cleanser between the abundance of same-same titles that purvey our game libraries. While not a lengthy story, it feels complete, and the fact that you can play through it in a few hours means that you can completely immerse yourself in it and see it to its conclusion, which I highly recommend.

While the story is interesting and keeps you guessing, the real star of this piece is the setting and the way it is translated through the game’s unique art style. Colours are bright and bold with many hues of orange, red, and pink used to amazing effect in conveying gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, highlighting the beauty of the national park your character calls home for the summer.

My one gripe in this area is that while most of the world feels hyper-realistic, the characters and critters who inhabit it do not. For example, when you pick up a photograph the characters in the picture read and look as cartoonish characters might; the same is true of your protagonist’s animations: squared-off, fat fingers that look animated against a background that seems to be going for photo-realism with a pastel colour scheme. Aside from this dissonance however, the art direction is solid and no enjoyment is lost in the play-through of the game.

This ties in to my gripe about your character’s appearance. Early on in the game you’re asked by your off-screen companion to describe yourself physically. It would have been nice to be able to affect the appearance of your character through dialogue choices at this point. One thing that can take a player out of a game is an inability to identify with the protagonist at the center of the experience and I found myself experiencing cognitive disassociation every time I picked up a photo of “me” as I supposedly appeared.

Early on in the game I was a bit surprised to find that there was very little actual wildlife to be found. It felt out of place that a national park should not have more indigenous creatures roaming about. However, as I played through the game I came to believe more and more that this was a conscious decision on the part of the designers. This is not a Far Cry game where you’re meant to kill and skin half a dozen Komodo Dragons to make yourself a new ammo belt. This game is an entirely different animal, if you’ll pardon the pun. The lack of living, breathing creatures did something fantastic, it increased the sense of loneliness and isolation. So much so, that when you hear a rustling in the bushes behind you, you swing around to look.

This is an experience that truly makes you feel alone at times. Your only companion is a voice over the radio named Delilah and sometimes even she is out of reach. Your relationship with this disembodied voice moves the story along in strange and wonderful directions with innocent, simple problems becoming matters of life, death, and deepening mystery. Stakes are suitably raised and your sense of paranoia ramps up considerably in the game’s final act. These feelings of foreboding or intensity are further heightened by the occasional and effective use of well-written music cues.

In order to get the game into gear there is quite a bit of text based exposition required to flesh out who “you”, a middle-aged man named Henry, are when you first begin your experience, but it’s all rather necessary to understand what makes Henry tick and what has motivated him to take on this lonely job in the wilderness. The ending does leave some niggling questions unanswered, but it would be disingenuous for this style of story to tie everything neatly up with a bow. The truth here is subjective and is a product of the facts you bothered to learn and investigate through out the course of your play-thru. I did experience occasional frame rate issues while running across the map, but nothing terrible. There were no real glaring bugs that I could find either.

A few functionalities in the game puzzled me. First and foremost, the “examine” button which allows you to pick up some objects in the world and turn them over in your hand. While a cool interaction, it was never really useful for anything specific. I was expecting at some point to turn a book over to find a code for a hidden cache or directions to a secret location, but no dice...and there are no such locations in the game. Areas that you’re not required to visit or investigate during the course of the story are just there. Or, in some cases just there...being creepy.

The second wasted functionality was the camera you take virtual pictures with. Yes, the images you capture show up during the credits and that’s fine, but I was hoping it would tie into some sort of achievement. A few times over the course of the game Delilah hints for you to take a picture of something in the world, but unfortunately there’s no pay-off. Both of the above are minor gripes however and none of them detract from the enjoyment found in playing through this game.

Overall, what we have here in Firewatch is an immersive, and at times eerie, experience. It is the video game equivalent of reading a mystery, suspense, or thriller novel - one that you won’t wish to put down until you reach its' conclusion.

- Earning achievements for taking specific photos.

- Having clues contained in the text based items you frequently find in the game.

- The ability to alter the appearance of your in-game character.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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