Having played through the first day of Firewatch previously on a friend’s PlayStation 4, I was excited to see that the game was coming to Xbox One. But now that I’ve actually finished the game on my favorite console, I’m a bit less excited.
More interactive story than game, Firewatch starts on a high note: You’re presented with a series of flashbacks in which you learn the sad back-story of the protagonist, Hank, as he drives out to the Wyoming wilderness to start his new job as a fire watcher at a remote outpost in the mountains. There, you meet, via radio, another fire watcher, Delilah, who sits in another distant output.
And the conversation starts and guides the story. The choices you make during the flashbacks and in dealing with Delilah impact how the game goes in interesting ways, though the broad strokes will always be identical. And as you interact with Delilah over the radio, and start wandering around the woods, getting used to your new job, a mystery arrives. And then deepens.
Someone, or some group of someones, perhaps, is watching you, and is monitoring your communications with Delilah. Your outpost is ransacked, and other strange events start happening. As you go, you learn the back story of the place, of the rangers and fire watchers who came before you, and of Delilah, who becomes a friend—and perhaps more than a friend—over time.
It’s such an incredible beginning. And as Day 1 turns into Day 2, and the game progresses, you really get invested in your character, in the people he interacts with—always virtually, never face to face—and the growing mystery. This beginning is a textbook example of setting the scene and really pulling in the reader, er, gamer. It’s breathtaking.
Story aside, a big part of the appeal of this game is the presentation.Firewatch is not photo realistic, but calling the graphics cartoonish is unfair. Instead, it’s like a lushly-realize oil painting, one that is a joy to explore, and at times, just gawk at. The sounds effects and sparsely-used music soundtrack are likewise top-notch and just add to the immersion.
But as Day 2 runs into Day 78 or whatever, the game drifts off. Those mysteries aren’t as mysterious as you thought. And some are outright red herrings, like the missing teens who aren’t really missing, or a side-story about previous rangers that goes absolutely nowhere. In the end, you find yourself racing to a conclusion that you hope will pay off in some huge and meaningful way … but it doesn’t.
And that puts me in an uncomfortable spot.
On the surface, Firewatch is sound: It’s beautiful, moving even, and has a neat plot. But like so much fiction, one gets the idea that its authors expended all their good ideas on the beginning. And the game, take in whole—and, it’s only about three hours of game play, I bet—just doesn’t deliver on the promise of the beginning. Perhaps because the introduction is so solid, the end just falls flat.
Critics on Twitter tried to tell me that I was the problem, that this is what life is like, it just drifts off sometimes and doesn’t conclude in some satisfactory, Hollywood movie-like manner. I can’t disagree strongly enough: This is a game, and not real life. And while French-style meandering stories with no beginning and no end may have their place in some art school setting, this kind of thing is ultimately unsatisfying, especially when you’ve bought into your character.
So like the game Inside for Xbox One, which likewise started off with a bang and then completely lost its mind and became stunningly unplayable and non-enjoyable, Firewatch ultimately disappoints. And … I am so sorry to have to tell you that.
Were Firewatch less expensive than its $20 asking price, I think I could make a rational excuse for taking the plunge. And of course, the Xbox One version of this game does offer a few neat extras. These include an audio walkthrough of the game and free-roam capabilities in the not-as-open-as-you-think-it-is world in which it takes place, both of which you can’t use until you’ve finished it once. I don’t know.
Well, I have finished it once. And while I’m intrigued by some aspects of how the game was made, the notion of playing through Firewatch again just to hear those insights is not all that enticing to me.
What a great set-up. But what a disappointing wind-down.