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Burning Bright: ‘Firewatch’ review

Firewatch
Firewatch

It is almost sunset. You sit finishing up your sandwich on the far end of a canyon. As time passes, the sun drifts down between the large rocky walls on your sides. The whole place lights up around you.

Boulders transform into a magnificent purple and the small river at the bottom of the canyon glistens with such brilliance it almost looks as if it were on fire. Scenes like this don’t just exist in “Firewatch,” they are commonplace.

Released on PC and PlayStation 4 earlier this month, “Firewatch” is a first person adventure game set in the Wyoming wilderness of 1989. Players assume the role of Henry, a middle-aged man who works as a wildfire lookout during the summer.

Henry’s wife, Julia, is suffering from an early onset form of Alzheimer’s disease. Looking to get away and focus on himself, Henry accepts the job as wildfire lookout and hopes to get through the emotional rollercoaster of losing someone he loves. When he arrives in his watchtower, Henry is greeted by Delilah, his boss, over a walkie-talkie. Energetic and happy, Delilah is a good counter to Henry’s cool and patient attitude, which shines through their conversations together.

These conversations will make up the vast majority of the dialogue and plot progression in “Firewatch.” Delilah is the only source of new missions for the players to complete and is in constant communication via the walkie-talkie to help. This leads to long periods of dialogue between the two, punctuated only by the actions Henry must complete to progress the story.

Developer Campo Santo manages to keep these periods fresh throughout the brisk five-hour story of “Firewatch” by having unmatched voice actors for the two leads. The sarcasm, lightning fast quips and sharp intelligence shared between these two characters keep players engaged the whole game.

With strong dialogue to work with, “Firewatch” is free to create a world that is not graphically intensive. Cartoonish and stylized, the world is far from realistic, but it is still one of the most jaw-dropping games of this generation.

Picturesque landscapes and postcard-worthy vistas make up the open world of “Firewatch.” The player is free to explore and uncover the secrets of the open world at their leisure.

Supply caches, which are places where someone hides something containing secret items and rewards, and safe boxes filled with pieces of old advertisements or newspaper articles give the player a deeper sense of the world they exist in.

There are also traces of other watchtower attendants, with one safe box filled with their signatures. These are just a few of the many mysteries the Shoshone National Forest has to offer.

The downside of stylized visuals is that they look out of place when graphical glitches occur. Because they aren’t like the real world to begin with, any alterations to it take the player out of immersion completely.

Thankfully, and almost shockingly, this never happens in “Firewatch.” With many games releasing with bugs and graphical problems at launch these days, it is refreshing to see a game with that problem solved.

By all accounts, “Firewatch” should be a model of perfection, but there are issues with the game that are too big to gloss over.

For example, the game’s large play area is used against itself. In the main storyline, players are tasked with navigating the world using only a map and compass. These are quirky at best but frustrating at worst. The tools work fine when traveling long distances, but make a pain of finding the right path to a specific area.

This is unfortunately a perfect storm for “Firewatch.” Many times players can accurately get in the general area of their objective, but need to spend unnecessary amounts of time staring at the small print on the map to figure out exactly where they need to be.

These issues are compounded by the game’s first-person perspective. The map feels clunky and difficult to use in motion because of this perspective.

Additionally, this limited view works against the player when walking in overly-detailed areas leading to awkward movements through bushes and trees.

However, the player almost always has access to Delilah who will offer limited advice and calming words if you’re stuck. Again, it’s these little interactions with Delilah and Henry that make “Firewatch” shine, but the same can’t be said about the overarching plot of the game.

The focus of the plot is to uncover the secret behind mysterious events happening in the area. Beginning with someone shining a flashlight from a distance at Henry and running away, the mystery of the game gives players a sense of unease throughout the story. This effect of tension and limited fear is well executed, but not welcomed in “Firewatch.”

It seems almost counterintuitive to have a huge, empty yet beautiful world to explore, but create fear by doing so. The tight geometry of areas are examples of great game design, but lead to some of the most uneasy moments in the game, thus ending the player’s immersion into the world.

Although these immersion-breaking moments are rough, they are few and far between to the game’s benefit. Hardly ever do games get criticized for executing something too well, but this is one of those unfortunate cases.

Even though most players will take time to explore the world and its wonders adding to the total play time, some will play the game straight through. This produces a rushed story that culminates in a forced reveal that aware players will see coming from a mile away.

An argument can be made that the story is not the focal point of the game, but with a dialogue-heavy adventure, players deserve a better end to the story.

Minor setbacks and a lackluster ending hold “Firewatch” back from being truly perfect. But sharp dialogue and a gorgeous open world make it a game to remember and one that players will find new unexplored secrets in each hour of play.

4 out of 5 stars.

Story by: Mike Hebert, A&E Reporter

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