“Walking Simulator” used to be a dirty phrase. GONE HOME was derided as one for its lack of skill-based mechanics, be they combat or, more common for narrative titles, stealth or puzzles. Yet that game eventually proved that games can captivate with only a space to explore and some voices to populate it. Since GONE HOME, there has been an explosion of “walking sims,” with standouts like THE VANISHING OF ETHAN CARTER and OXENFREE proving that the emerging genre is capable of weaving some of the most compelling tales out there.
FIREWATCH is the long teased addition to this list of games that eschew challenge for story, developed by a crew of ex-Telltale writers at Campo Santo. You play as Henry, a Wreck-It Ralph doppelganger who leaves home to work as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, a year after the devastating Yellowstone fires of 1988. Stewing with the guilt of leaving behind a wife with Alzheimer’s, coupled with the isolation of his post, Henry finds solace conversing with his supervisor, Delilah, via radio. The subject matter in this arc is rather mature, which is tempered by a side plot of a mystery stalker who is tracking Henry. These two halves of the narrative are tonal opposites, yet both still contrast exquisitely with the Pixar-style visuals and theme park sounding locales like “Thunder Canyon” and “Ruby River.”
Frolic Forest and Mellow Meadow were already taken, unfortunately
It’s odd, then, that FIREWATCH, a game that places you alone in the outdoors, feels more like a talking simulator than a walking one. Shoshone is a surprisingly open world with striking colors and plenty of hidden curios, but the sense of freedom that exists within its peers is completely absent. Though GONE HOME placed you in a confined house and ETHAN CARTER, SOMA, and OXENFREE all followed relatively linear routes, they offered the player greater agency than anything that FIREWATCH can afford. Sure, the world is open to explore, yet the player is constantly railroaded and forced onto paths. Sudden or otherwise unavoidable triggers ending the day will prohibit inquisitive players from inspecting certain objects or accessing hidden areas specific to that stage of the game. Despite having the most expansive map of any walking sim, FIREWATCH does the most to discourage exploration within it.
The narrative also suffers similar constrictions. Henry’s backstory is decided through a series of text prompts that ultimately all lead to the same inciting incident, and the 20 years of exposition delivered in five minutes leaves no stone unturned about his past. Players can similarly steer the direction of their relationship with Delilah, yet it will still always end in the same (rushed and choked) manner no matter what. The creeper half of the game also suffers from contrivances and neither arc quite finishes to satisfaction.
I’M GONNA TREK IT!
It’s not all bad with FIREWATCH. Dialogue writing is superb, and the performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones are engrossing. The decision-making process utilizes seamless interaction with the environment, such as when deciding to leave, confiscate, or trash a camper’s contraband goods. Navigation relies upon a responsive map and compass rather than an intrusive HUD, and the visuals are far and away the strongest card here.
Unfortunately, these positive aspects are mere window dressing and can’t cover up the core problems plaguing FIREWATCH. It’s the restrictions upon restrictions that really spoil the whole batch. FIREWATCH set its sights higher than any rival, but it set its priorities in all the wrong places. All of the competitors that I mentioned previously cost the same or less as FIREWATCH, and while they do not look as good or have access to MAD MEN alumn, they weave a better story, and that’s what matters in the end. This is a title that can take a hike.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on PC.