Retro Review | Firewatch
Developed by Campo Santo and released in 2016, Firewatch went on to sell 2.5 million copies within two years and is fondly thought of by many an Indie gamer. Although the game was positively received generally and praised in many areas the ending was criticised by some reviewers. Having just arrived on Xbox Game Pass this seems like an ideal time to go through it again and see whether it still stands up. I have fond memories of my first playthrough several years ago and the chance to live in a Fire Lookout Tower in the middle of nowhere is more appealing than ever in these first weeks of 2022. Strap on your backpack and a pair of tight eighties shorts and let’s go hiking in the XboxEra Retro Review of Firewatch.
The game begins with the back story of the main character Henry. We learn about the first meeting with his future wife Julia in a bar in 1975 and can make choices every few screens to fill in details about their relationship. They get married and after several reasonably happy years, Julia is struck down by early-onset dementia which then develops into Alzheimer’s Disease. By 1989 Julia is being cared for by her parents in Australia and Henry has attempted to escape from his unhappy situation by taking a job as a Fire Watcher at the Two Forks Lookout in the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.
Is she there?
Players take control of Henry as he starts a two-day hike to his new home in a rickety-looking tower. Employed to keep a lookout for fires and be a park warden, he is all alone. From a window, he can see in the distance the tower on the next mountain which is manned by a flirtatious warden called Delilah. Walkie-Talkie contact with Delilah is the only contact that Henry has with the outside world throughout the game. As the more experienced of the two of them she acts as his supervisor and tells him what needs to be done daily.
While investigating two teenagers illegally setting off fireworks Henry is accused of being a ‘Creeper’ when he discovers them skinny dipping in the lake. After warning the girls about their actions Henry spots a shadowy figure as he makes his way back home and on arrival at the tower finds that it has been ransacked. After the teenagers are reported missing a few days later, their campsite is discovered wrecked and a communications line is cut things turn very dark as Henry is the last person to have seen the girls alive.
I was soon intrigued and asked myself multiple questions such as, what has happened to the girls? why is Henry being observed and by whom? is Henry being manipulated? What happened to the previous warden? and why has an area been secretly fenced off within the park? Play the game yourself to find out more.
Firewatch has an art style based on a single painting that emulates National Park Service posters from between 1933 and 1939 and the game was stunning to look at when it was released. Six years later this is still one of the most beautiful games that I have ever played. Using my Xbox Series X, it looks even better than I remembered and it took no time at all to find myself totally transported to Shoshone. Even the menu screen which displays the Lookout Tower against a clear blue sky is a pleasure to sit and look at.
Going into the trees
Twenty-three different types of trees were modeled to prevent the forest from looking generic and the watchtowers themselves were designed to the exact government specifications used in the real world. This level of care and attention by the developers brings Shoshone to life. I witnessed awesome sunsets, explored a canyon at twilight, and saw early morning mist rising from the ground in just a few of the memorable visual moments that have stuck in my mind ever since my playthrough.
Described as a First-Person Adventure Game the narrative takes place over a day-night cycle. You are required to do a multitude of different tasks to move the story along and get to the next day. Finding rule-breakers, checking communication line utility poles, hiking to pick up food supplies, and boarding up a broken window are just some examples of a generally relaxing life to be lived in the wilderness.
Starting with relatively few tools you are soon able to acquire and use others such as an instant camera, a flashlight, an axe to cut your way into hidden areas, and ropes that allow you to rappel down cliffs and unlock other sections of the forest. A map and compass are used to navigate your way around (don’t worry it is fairly simple to do) and as you discover things more detail is added to the map. Opening Supply Caches dotted around the area via a genius padlock code allows Henry to pick up food, the odd tool, and useful information including finer detail for further map updates.
Remote parts of the map become accessible as the story plays out (especially once you have the axe) and area exploration is required to work your way through the history of your surroundings and unravel the many mysteries that you face. Stumbling across long-abandoned artifacts and locations adds depth to the game and brings home to the player that Henry is just the latest of many people to have sought isolation in this corner of the world over the previous decades.
Although some would describe Firewatch as a ‘walking simulator’ it is so much more than that. Gameplay revolves around the simple concept of traversing the area while conversing with the distant Delilah but at the same time manages to interweave the backstories of several different people into an understandable narrative while also creating a sense of mystery and paranoia for anyone playing the game.
The main characters live within sight of each other but are never within reach. Getting to know each other via the basic methods of a walkie-talkie and the odd written note, a complex relationship develops between the two of them that is incredibly well written. It soon became clear that these are two damaged individuals running away from problematic pasts. Delilah drinks a lot and flirts with Henry on occasion which over time gives us the sense that she may have had relationships with previous occupants of the Two Forks Lookout. Although I chose to talk to Delilah a lot during my playthrough the sense of solitude I felt was incredible. Multiple characters such as firefighters cutting a fire break are mentioned as being nearby on various days but Henry always manages to miss them. Stumbling across their abandoned base camps made me feel more and more isolated as the game went on. In my experience, it is very unusual for a game to invoke feelings like this.
Half heard conversations between Delilah and other wardens soon raise questions about Delilah’s history, reliability, and whether she can be trusted. The relationship between the two protagonists changes depending on how/if the player responds to her via a multiple-choice mechanic. However, with the shadow of Alzheimer’s and the sense of being observed and possibly manipulated looming over Henry, his mental health soon causes him to question his actions. A sequence in the middle of the night when a confused Henry thinks that he is speaking to Julia on the radio when he is in fact talking to Delilah was particularly poignant.
Losing myself in a forest
The atmospherics experienced while exploring in a cave late in the game was able to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Sound design is so well done that details such as a breeze howling through cracks in the rock combined with the haunting musical score managed to put me on edge until I was able to find my way back into the sunlight.
When a fire did eventually break out (not a spoiler as the game is called Firewatch) the environmental change brought about by the addition of smoke and an orange hue had a magical effect on surroundings that I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Everything was suddenly alien to me with nothing looking quite how it had before. A feeling of anxiety was awakened in the pit of my stomach as I tried to navigate my way to safety which again demonstrates how this game can influence the feelings of the person playing it.
Granted, the ending of the game could have been better handled but after playing it twice I have always been satisfied with the story resolution and I would gladly play it again. This is very unusual as I would never normally play through a title more than once.
There are no special accessibility options to be mentioned but they are not really to be expected in a game this old.
Wrapping things up, Firewatch is in my opinion a great addition to Xbox Game Pass. The game is worthy of its highly regarded status and is one of the best older indie games out there. If you have never played it, you really should give it a look. Completion only takes around four and a half hours and having your emotional response manipulated so cleverly by a game of this type is truly worth experiencing.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS4|PS5, Nintendo Switch, Linux, Macintosh|
|Release Date||February 9th, 2016|
|Publisher||Panic Inc., Campo Santo|