Firewatch Review

Firewatch is the debut project for both its developer, Campo Santo, and its publisher, Panic. Set after the Yellowstone fires of 1988, you play as Henry, a man who takes a summer job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming.

It sounds like a rather boring premise, but Campo Santo manages to turn this woodland adventure into both a chilling psychological horror, and a chance to become introspective, aided by disarming humour.

Your character Henry is going through a difficult stage of his life, as his wife and college sweetheart, Julia, has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 41. After spending time attempting to care for her in their shared home, the responsibility becomes too much. From this point, you are handed the difficult task of deciding whether your wife goes to live with her parents, or goes to stay in a care home.

The entire prologue is text-based, telling you the story of Henry and Julia with a series of white sentences on a dark background. You are allowed to make certain decisions throughout, such as which type of dog you adopt together, but other times you simply press a button and continue to read the couple’s predetermined fate. This method of storytelling adds a sobriety to the tale, but it can also be difficult to stay engaged, and by the time the entire story is told, you’re itching to get to the gameplay.

Regardless of which decisions you make in the prologue, it all turns out the same: Henry escapes from his responsibilities, leaves Julia behind, and goes to live in a firewatch tower in the forest. Alone.

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Henry and Julia.

Well, actually, he’s not completely alone.

Using a two-way radio, Henry is able to talk to his boss for over the summer – Delilah. She gives him his first assignment: stop people from letting off fireworks in the forest. They casually exchange witty banter throughout this first adventure, and from then on she becomes a solid companion. You are given the choice to report to her whenever you find an item of interest, and you also get to choose the dialogue options.

Unlike in certain other games, where all dialogue leads to the same conclusion, or there is hardly any difference between the choices (“A: Yeah”, “B: Yes, “C: Of course”), Firewatch does an excellent job of making your choices different and interesting. There is a particularly fun part where Delilah asks you to describe yourself so she can draw you, and you are able to see the drawing later. She draws you true to your description, even if it actually looks nothing like Henry.

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Small details like this make it easy to feel a real connection with Delilah, and you begin to look forward to being able to speak with her again.

However, this also means that you are entirely dependent on her, as she is the only person you are able to talk to during your stay – and you can’t even see her. This point is brought into question later, when you begin to doubt the events of the summer, and doubt who you can trust.

It appears as though someone has been watching you for the duration of your adventure, and they seem to be trying to sabotage your efforts. The casual feeling of the game takes a complete turn in the second half, and you are immersed in panic as you try to figure out the mystery of the forest, and what happened to the last lookout that lived in Henry’s tower.

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Your temporary home.

Gameplay-wise, all you are really able to do whilst in control of Henry is walk, run, and pick items up. You can also press a button to climb a rope or slide down a slope. Though the controls are simple, it makes it feel realistic. You are given a map and a compass, and you have to figure out your own way across the forest, constantly checking your compass to make sure you’re travelling in the right direction. You have no real skills, no ability to fight; you’re just an ordinary man in a forest. This makes the second half even scarier.

The scenery is stunning, with wide open expanses to gaze across, starry skies at night and the sun beating down on Jonesy Lake in daytime. It gives you a feeling of longing, makes you want to travel to Wyoming and see these sights for yourself.

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It’s obvious that Campo Santo is more comfortable designing scenery than characters, since you never see another human being in the game apart from in a few select photos. The lack of character interaction somewhat forces you to appreciate the view more, though.

However, for all its good points, Firewatch does have a couple of flaws, one of which could be considered pretty huge.

A main point of the game is to experience Henry’s isolation, and though it does deliver an authentic experience, it can become quite boring. There are sections of the game where you are required to walk literally across the entire map with little to no interaction. It can become frustrating, and the novelty wears off when you’re traipsing back through the same damn patch of forest for the third time because you lost track of your compass and went down the wrong path. I found myself occasionally wishing for fast travel.

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The biggest drawback of this game, though, is the ending. Without spoiling anything, it has to be said that the game’s ending was incredibly disappointing. The build-up of the second half was fantastic, it had a creeping sense of dread that increased as you continued playing, and left you grasping at straws trying to figure out what was going on. With all of that tension and suspense, it wouldn’t be wrong to expect a killer ending, with all the loose ends tied, and a sense of satisfaction for completing the game and solving the mystery.

Instead, you are left feeling cold.

It is revealed that several of the mysteries from before were nothing but red herrings and attempts to throw you off, and the real answer is one that doesn’t feel big enough for the scale of the build-up from beforehand.

We leave Henry without ever really reaching a satisfying conclusion. We don’t know what happens when the adventure is over; what happens to him, what happens to the other characters?

Perhaps the aim of the game was to leave you to your own imagination: what would you, personally, do?

But it’s hard to speculate and feel satisfied with your own conclusions when you’re not even satisfied with the ones the game presents you with.

This is Firewatch’s greatest flaw.

Despite this, it is still a fun and immersive adventure game, especially considering that it’s the debut for both its parent companies. It is short and interesting enough to be replayable, and for the selling price, it goes above and beyond expectations – for the most part.

Firewatch is an excellent first-time game, and I hope to see more from its creators in the future.

7/10.

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The Boy and The Beast (Bakemono no Ko) review

I almost didn’t get to review this film.

As the cinematic highlight of the year in Glasgow, one of the Glasgow Film Festival’s most anticipated films was the Scottish premiere of The Boy and The Beast. The Sunday showing was sold out far quicker than I expected, and my friend and I had to bargain with the theatre in order to score me an extra ticket to get in. They were kind enough to offer me a spare reserved seat.

Anyway, I eventually did get to see it, and I’ll be eternally glad that I did. The Boy and The Beast is a fantastic film.

The latest work of acclaimed writer and director Mamoru Hosoda, known for animated masterpieces such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children (a personal favourite), The Boy and The Beast had a lot to live up to, and for the most part I believe it did.

The focus of the film is Ren, a nine year old boy whose mother has just died in a traffic accident. In the absence of his divorced father, Ren will be taken in by his unpleasant legal guardians, who call him the “successor to the family line”.

Unwilling to accept this fate, Ren flees to the streets where he is later noticed by two strange hooded men – one of whom reveals himself to be a huge and intimidating beast: Kumatetsu. Ren decides to inconspicuously follow the beast and his companion, and ends up in an unfamiliar world: the Beast Kingdom.

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Kumatetsu’s design accurately represented his character.

In the Beast Kingdom, the beast lord has decided to ascend to godhood (which is something beast lords are able to do), and is in need of a successor. The successor will be decided by a battle. The two contenders are: Kumatetsu, who is lazy, brash, and lonely but extremely powerful, and Iozen, who is popular, graceful, and loved by all. Iozen has two pupils and future successors of his own – his two sons – whereas Kumatetsu has none. The beast lord declares that Kumatetsu needs a pupil to train, and Ren is conveniently found by Kumatetsu on his search for a worthy one.

Trapped, with no way to get back, Ren begrudgingly accepts Kumatetsu’s offer to become his pupil. Since Ren is nine at the time, Kumatetsu gives him the nickname “Kyuta” – as in “kyu” meaning “nine”. Initially, the two constantly butt heads and argue over the smallest things, but they eventually grow to respect one another, and develop a father-son relationship. They realise they are both very similar, as Kumatetsu grew up alone as well. Both Ren and Kumatetsu learn from each other, and a key theme throughout the film is their path to discovering what “true strength” is.

Of course, nothing goes quite as smoothly as they might have hoped, and obstacles such as Ren finding his way back to the human world and meeting a girl there, and altercations involving Iozen’s pupils, leads to some unexpected turns in the plot. These twists come together to give The Boy and The Beast a powerful, emotionally-charged finale.

As far as themes go, The Boy and The Beast is similar to Wolf Children. Both films have strong themes of family, the struggle between identifying as human or beast, and feelings of isolation throughout. This is unsurprising given that they are both Hosoda’s works, but it did leave me feeling as though they were too similar at times. The parallels between Ren and Ame from Wolf Children were too obvious to ignore, especially because they also have a similar appearance.

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Ren (The Boy and The Beast)

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Ame (Wolf Children)

I have noticed that Hosoda’s lead characters often look very alike in general, and their designs can become tedious to see.

The film had some visually stunning scenes. My favourite one is near the start, where Ren is outside, upset over a hallucination of his mother. We see him crying alone in the dark, and then the camera’s focus moves to the gentle orange glow of the lit houses in the beast town he is overlooking – contrasting harsh feelings of distress and loneliness with a soft, serene, calming view.

When Ren was lost in both Tokyo and in the corridors to the Beast Kingdom, the point of view was at his eye level, and the camera movements were quick and shaky, which made the viewer feel as confused and disoriented as Ren. This was an excellent touch which helped viewers gain empathy for the character.

Although the film was painfully sad at times, it also had a great dose of humour dispersed throughout. One of the funniest characters was the current beast lord, a rabbit, whose airy disposition and tendency to disappear mid-conversation got quite a few laughs out of the audience. The silly disputes between Ren and Kumatetsu, such as Ren’s unwillingness to eat raw eggs like Kumatetsu, were also charming and funny, and helped to strengthen the ragtag family feeling.

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Kumatetsu and Ren (Kyuta) having a minor disagreement.

Most of the characters were interesting and loveable, but I was disappointed that the film followed the “dead mother used to create tragic background for main character” trope. We saw nothing of Ren’s mother beyond the fact that she was plain and kind. The only other notable female character in the film – a schoolgirl called Kaede whom Ren meets when he is 17 – is primarily used to add to Ren’s character as a potential love interest. However, she does have her own moments of character focus, and delivers a few memorable lines.

On the grounds of female representation, Wolf Children and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time are still far superior, but I am willing to let this slide.

Regardless of criticism and comparisons to other films, The Boy and The Beast is a beautiful coming-of-age film, with important morals of staying determined, working hard, choosing your own identity, and valuing family and love. The lines “You’ll make it. Pretend you already have” and “You get to choose what you want to do” inspired me greatly.

The Boy and The Beast is truly a film that can be enjoyed by people of all ages, and one that I’ll definitely be watching again.

7.5/10.