Firewatch’s opening is totally unexpected, with something so simple and effective in conjuring your character and getting you to relate to them, that it can easily be compared to the opening moments of The Last of Us or the sublime first ten minutes of the Pixar movie ‘Up’. It sets the scene perfectly as bearded forty-something Henry heads to wilds of Wyoming during a particularly long, hot summer of 1989, to watch over the Shoshone National Forrest with only the voice of his boss, Delilah, to keep him company via radio.
What follows is perhaps less of a game and more of an interactive five to six hour play. You don’t really do much more than investigate and explore the countryside, with the story gradually unfolding as you visit locations or discover the odd clue. Much like Dropsy the Clown or SOMA, the trailers for the game are misleading, and the mystery of who or what is out in the forest with you is almost secondary to the relationship that blossoms between Henry and Delilah.
The two characters converse about love, life, regrets and hopes as Henry wanders across the mountainous countryside and, like Life is Strange and other modern graphic adventure games, you can influence the relationship to some degree by choosing how to respond to Delilah. It’s not as refined as the Dontnod title, you can’t branch the story in any real way, but you can change small details.
Thankfully the two actors voicing the main characters, Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in Mad Men) and Cissy Jones (Joyce in Life is Strange) do a fantastic job, and the script has been carefully crafted and directed so that the dialogue flows freely. No matter what you chose to say or do, the conversation never seems stilted or awkward as it does often with games such as Telltales’ The Walking Dead.
The game’s stylised version of a small patch of the Wyoming wilderness can be gorgeous to look at, awash with reds and gold as the sun sets, and as the game progresses and you approach the end of Henry’s stay, that environment changes quite dramatically in tone and tension, as smoke from a nearby fire sweeps across the landscape.
That said, there can be occasional pop in and the engine sometimes freezes for a microsecond, making the screen jerk slightly. The draw distance of the detail is rather short as well, shadows and grass details only spring in to view around five metres in front of you, it’s not too distracting unless you are wandering down a gulley and the bright red rocks in front of you are seemingly painted burnt auburn as you move forward and the engine draws in shadows. It’s a little niggle, but I’m sure the PlayStation 4 isn’t being pushed too hard when rendering the landscape and could do more.
Apart from some birds and a stag at the start of the game, the forest is a surprisingly empty environment. Although you may hear an animal or bird you will almost never see them, but while it may be unrealistic, it does add to the atmosphere of the game, reinforcing the idea that it’s just you out in the mountains without even a mouse for company. The play area is quite large, but despite being the great outdoors you are locked in to the footpaths and routes dictated by the developers. Straying too far in any direction and you will reach cliffs or fallen trees that block your path.
I would love to finish my review there, but sadly I did encounter quite a few game breaking problems when playing on PS4. I have had to restart the whole game four times before finally managing to complete it as the game refused to trigger the next part of the story. Thankfully, Stefan didn’t encounter similar bugs when playing on PC, but did find using a DualShock 4 controller to be impossible – despite apparently being supported – and had to quit the game and relaunch after a severe and sustained frame rate drop. [Update: anecdotally, these issues have not been reported in other reviews]
Unfortunately, if you encounter a game breaking bug, you can’t skip back to the previous checkpoint as it will have been overwritten by the new bugged save point – you might have luck reverting back to a save stored online. The problems I encountered occurred in different locations each time, so it appears to be more than just a single localised bug.
Another problem I encountered on three of my play throughs Henry’s hand was also merged with a rock for some time, obscuring the view of the compass and making navigation almost impossible.
The only upside of this is that I managed to play and explore practically every piece of dialogue in the game, and can say that, if you really want to, you could speed run Firewatch in a little over two hours.
You already know if you are going to be buying Firewatch, and if you loved Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Life Is Strange then this is the game for you. It’s small, short and almost perfectly formed, it’s just the shame the game broke so many times when I was playing it. I’m hoping these problems can be found and fixed very quickly after launch and I would suggest holding off buying the game until a patch has been released, but until then we don’t have much of a choice but to mark an otherwise lovely game down due to the problems encountered.