This review is written in an assumption that you know the basics of what Firewatch it's about. I mean, god, we have six readers, surely you must have paid some sort of attention here.
Firewatch is the game Mojo made, and by Mojo I mean Jake Rodkin, who, let's face it, probably totally identifies himself with the site more than anyone or anything else, even though we never received a goddamn review copy of this game. An oversight, I'm sure, just like his non-mention of us during the BAFTAs. (Are we bitter? Yes!)
Firewatch, then? What a mixed bag... Fantastic atmosphere, intriguing story, great voice acting, and... a bit lacking everywhere else. It's not the game I had hoped for, but it's close, and it surely beats dreck like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and its ilk; the type of game a pseudo-intellectual would consider an example of how a game is art while the rest of us would just see it as eh-level writing.
There were times I was truly creeped out by Firewatch. Look back to the more surreal moments of Puzzle Agent 2, and you find echoes here, and David Lynch has been smeared on well; in addition those who liked the first season of The Walking Dead will find plenty to like here. There aren't any puzzles, just scenarios and dialogue chunks (with your firewatch boss) to lead you through. Not an in your face traditionally complicated game, but complicated in the sense that the story makes you think and feel... (I assume that's all very subjective, though.)
So, it's a well written game. Who doesn't love a good mystery with aloof husbands and missing teenage girls? And it's a well designed game, too, in the sense you never can get lost in the wood (trails are well marked, be it with signs or minor things like beer cans to follow), and the interaction with various types of items you find along the way are interesting, and helpful to further the journey.
But again, the atmosphere and the main story -- very good. I got creeped out, and you always feel like you're walking in a real world, stalked, and with an X-Files conspiracy right in your back. Plus, the game starts with what is pretty much a text adventure. Which is awesome for those who love nostalgia.
But there are also things that just don't seem right. Get lost from a path and you'll be stuck against ledges you easily should be able to climb, and rocks you should be able to scale, with no luck. The programmers didn't have the time to work with that, I assume because of budgets. The graphics, while fantastic as far as the artistic side goes, are lacking in the technical nature. The viewpoint is generated within eye-sight, Xbox 360 style, and locations and objects lack technical details. The main character -- first person and all taken into consideration -- looks a bit like a muppet.
One cannot get past the fact the game has a lot of traveling back and forth. Seriously. I remember being all conversational in 2004 with Jake about this, and we had agreements about that sort of design. ¬ ¬ There is really very little to discover going back and forth through locations, but here I was, doing just so. Luckily the atmosphere is good, and it keeps you somewhat interested in your surroundings.
Voice acting is perfect, particularly if you like one of the truly underrated characters from Mad Men, and it really elevates the story of two people trying to understand each other. The music is so-so, going from atmospheric to cheesy out-in-the-woods guitar playing. One of the weaker parts of the game.
Still, flaws aside, Firewatch gives you the bang for the buck you would have hoped for. The story is excellent, as is the atmosphere. Maybe it's not Jake's Monkey Island (one could say that was Tales...), but it's a great first effort from a new studio. The story really works. The gameplay? Eh... But then, sometimes one needs a good six hour interactive story to pass the day.
Good job, Campo Santo. Maybe next time it'll be great? My feeling is that it will.