Firewatch is a gorgeous game. There are breathtaking vistas around every corner, bubbling rivers flowing to crystalline lakes and sprawling meadows more verdant than any you've ever known. It's all realized with an eye that captures the majesty of the natural world, but exaggerated for effect by painting a landscape in the way a poet would sonnetize a moment in time. Being out in these Wyoming expanses is incredible, as everywhere you turn provides a different, stunning perspective of Campo Santo's vision of the world.
Firewatch is an achingly lonely game. Henry's life hasn't gone the way he'd hoped, and recent events have pushed him so hard, his only recourse was to flee all obligations for the relatively solitary existence of a temporary fire lookout during a particularly dry, hot Wyoming summer. It was a rash decision, and one that's left Henry with little to do but reflect on his life, how it went wrong, and why he didn't work hard enough to fix it, if it could have been fixed at all. Or perhaps that's just how it feels being Henry's guide on this journey, and having nothing but time and solitude as your constant companions.
For every moment of pure brilliance the visuals bring, Firewatch has an equally stirring bit of writing. Henry spends the majority of Firewatch all by his lonesome, save for the times when his supervisor Delilah checks in over the radio. These moments of human contact are brief, but shine a light on the kind of people Delilah and Henry are in this world. You direct the conversation with simple responses to Delilah, and have at least a little bit of a say in what kind of recluse Henry has become. Is he remorseful about things that happened leading him to this point, or is he short with Delilah and walled off inside his own mind?
The overarching plot, which takes its course over nearly 80 days, isn't affected that much by your talking points, but you still do get a say in what kind of life Henry is living after his life-altering decision. Campo Santo doesn't take it easy on Henry in his life before arriving in Wyoming. The opening moments of the game allow you to relive what got him to this point, and it's as draining and somber an opening 10 minutes as any game you'll ever play. The weight of what's happened sticks with you through the entire summer, even through Firewatch's more mysterious and uneven moments.
Ah yes, there is a mystery driving Henry along his journey. You won't just have to sit in the woods and think about your broken heart between sunbeams breaking through the trees. A series of events transpires one day while Henry is out for a walk that set the tone and pace for the rest of the summer. Between everything else that's happened in his life, the strange goings-on in Wyoming are just icing on the cake. It's unfortunate though that these elements aren't as strong as the rest of the story.
There's some intense build-up during the handful of hours you'll be in charge of Henry's life, but the resolution lacks punch. It's all a bit deflating after becoming so invested in what's happening to Henry and Delilah. Not every story with a mystery has to have some sort of incredible payoff, but Firewatch's fails to resonate as strongly as the singular moments leading up to it along the way. It's still a worthwhile narrative, but having a stronger final few beats could have elevated this adventure to be memorable for more than its character moments and fantastical setting.
There isn't much gameplay to speak of, and that's perfectly fine. Firewatch's most game-y elements revolve around finding keys and clues, or climbing rocks to reach a new area. It's refreshing to have an experience like this that's more about introspection and taking in the world around you than it is about ensuring you picked up all the beer cans some partying teens left behind. There aren't any secret coves to explore with your climbing kit. That's not what Firewatch is about. There are a lot of little slices of life to enjoy out in the wilderness while you're exploring, and these give depth and heart to Firewatch's world. Even when things are burning down around you, the ashes floating through the sky bring a surreal beauty to darkness Henry's wrapped himself in.
Firewatch is at its best when it allows you just to explore its captivating landscapes... and spend some time on your own thinking about everything and nothing all at once. The driving force of the mystery takes some of that brilliant shine off, as it reminds you you're playing a game. The choices you make don't give you a better or worse ending, and the number of books you find don't unlock a trophy. It's all just color for one of the most vibrant worlds you'll ever see. In those moments between plot points, Firewatch excels, and that's where you'll want to be.