GAME NAME: FireWatch
DEVELOPER(S): Campo Santo
PUBLISHER(S): Campo Santo
PLATFORM(S): PC, PS4 (reviewed)
GENRE(S): Walking Simulator, Adventure
RELEASE DATE(S): February 9, 2016
FireWatch, developer Campo Santo’s first release, is an entry into the newest genre of “walking simulators,” similar in mechanics to Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. In FireWatch, you’ll do a lot of walking. And some climbing and huffing, and rote mystery solving. But mostly walking.
You are Henry, a 40ish, bearded fellow who is taking the summer to think over some recent heavy stuff that’s happened in your life. Your wife Julia was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and you were saddled with a DUI. This background portrait is painted in a short “choose your own” style text, and is pretty central to Henry’s character. And while these are some serious life events, the quick text of how you lived the early years of your life distill it down to “ok my dude is sad.” Which is the first issue in a string of story problems FireWatch runs into.
Sad Henry brings his sabbatical to a national park in Wyoming to sit in solitude and be a fire lookout, where your only companionship is radio contact with Delilah, the sort-of manager of a bunch of lookouts. She’s chatty and inquisitive, but here is the second issue. At times, she comes off as a sympathetic ear, telling you to go visit your wife – but shortly following it up with unsubtle come-ons and sexy growls. It’s a little jarring. Also her drinking and cursing gets a little old; we get it, you’re by yourself. But you and Delilah will develop a connection, which obviously comes from only getting to talk to one person for 80 days.
The third (and biggest) issue I’ve had with FireWatch is the plot and its sideplots. As you think and chat and overcome the gravity of the rest of your life, a few mysteries develop. And while they all start out with a lot of promise, each one boils away very quickly. In one, an interesting setup to what seems to be a frame-job ends suddenly and with almost no fanfare, just a quick radio conversation. Another has the potential to be a thrilling cat-and-mouse stalking scenario that similarly ends very quickly, even though it has plenty of buildup (and many of those cues are missed or poorly presented as well). There also feels like an enormous disconnect between playing Henry and actually being him; sort of an opposite Nate Drake Effect. While in Uncharted you could never be as cool as Nathan Drake, here in FireWatch you’ll never be as schlubby as Henry. I can watch and accept these sorts of things to an ancillary character – say, if all this stuff happened to the previous lookout and I had to uncover it – but for all its immersiveness, it feels like the game holds you at arm’s length, telling you this is happening to someone else.
But enough pontificating about plots and unfulfilled premises and projections of character; how’s the game?
Well it’s pretty dull. You’ll walk. You can run, too, if you’re tired of walking. Press X to hop over a log, or rappel, or climb up some rocks. Without a captivating plot or interesting system, you’re really just milling about the woods. And although the map makes everything seem open, there are definite linear pathways to nearly all the places you’ll need to go. You may bumble around a bit in the beginning, but by about midway through the game you’ll easily navigate to various spots without having to reference the map very much. Invisible walls and knocked-down trees will block your path at times. There’s just no life to it. Early in the game, you’ll see a deer. At one point, you can adopt a turtle, which pans out to nothing. It’s you and the woods and your incessant chattering radio.
It’s damn pretty when you stop to take it all in – and basically only then. Walking and running leads to frequent graphic stuttering, dropping the framerate precipitously for a few seconds at a time. This happens far too often, and is quite annoying. But for about the first 3/4 of the game, nearly any still-frame is picturesque. Vistas of distant mountains, sun streaking through trees, fields with tall, waving grass – all gorgeous. And the ability to look down and see your feet (!!!) is a very nice touch. Henry isn’t just some floating, bobbing camera out in the Wyoming back country.
The audio is phenomenal. Appropriate music adds weight to many situations you’ll find yourself in, but it also knows when NOT to be playing. There’s no constant background soundtrack to thump you along, and the game is made substantially better for it. The voice acting is stellar as well. As with other games featuring Mad Men second-stringers, special attention was paid to the dialogue, and it sounds fantastic.
It feels like there was so much wasted potential here with FireWatch. For a game all about the story and mystery, there’s a serious lack of both. Graphics slowdown hamstrings the game as well, which for such a pretty-looking game is a severe downer. I imagine Henry retelling these stories to a friend at a bar; when he finishes the friend goes “that’s it?”
Yup. That’s it.