Firewatch (PC)

firewatch-artwork-1What makes a person take a job that isolates them from society for months at a time? This question is asked, rather pointedly, moments into your first taste of the melancholic and thoughtful world of Firewatch, the debut game from Campo Santo.

As the player you already know the real answer, of course. A rather beautiful opening sequence takes you through a series of key events in the life of your character, Henry, in a style reminiscent of a Twine game. It’s a brave and unusual opening, from a brave and unusual game, and remarkably effective. Almost immediately a bond is formed with Henry, as brief snippets of text fade into view, accompanied by music and appropriate ambient sound effects. It’s one of the strongest openings I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and it’s hard not to feel moved as Henry’s touching back story reveals itself.

The meat of the game concerns Henry taking a job as a fire lookout in a national park in Wyoming, an apparently real job that entails living alone in a tower and staring out of the window for 3 months looking out for fires or fire hazards. It’s lonely and quiet work, which gives the player a lot of time for wondering off on their own, exploring their surroundings and enjoying stunning views of the environment around them.

firewatch_140830_01The game also gets good value out of its central conceit. It’s your first day on the job, which lets your boss handle a lot of tutorial dialogue without it seeming strange or forced. The game slowly reveals itself in a very natural and comfortable way, gradually unfurling your primary means of interaction and establishing a tone and setting that really get under your skin. The wilds of Wyoming are truly beautiful, with just enough sense of wilderness to reinforce the isolated sense of loneliness and exposure that the game delivers so well.

Of course, it goes with saying that visually this game is stunning! Many games have offered the user a camera to record their favourite moments for posterity, but Firewatch is probably the most natural home this mechanic has ever found. It’s hard to walk twenty steps in this glorious environment without something wonderful, some new vista that triggers an irresistible urge to start snapping away, and each foray out into the wilderness that the game sends you on seems to take place at a different time of day, shifting the lighting and the tone to breathe new life into familiar territory.

Also of note is some pitch perfect sound design, with sparing but beautifully placed snatches of haunting music, and a meticulously detailed soundscape that immerses the player perfectly into the world around them. Meticulous attention to detail is present at every turn, as footstep sounds match the terrain perfectly, wooden beams creak in the wind and birdsong intensifies at dawn and dusk.

firewatch_150615_02Mechanically there is a passing whiff of “Metroidvania” to the core game mechanics, as the player slowly gathers up a number of new tools, some of which provide new interaction options with the world. Additionally the player’s own familiarity with their surrounding grants them greater range of movement, as they learn new cut-throughs and short-cuts to assist their navigation of what initially seems an overwhelmingly confusing and large area of land, but quickly becomes very manageable. Some of the later tools seem somewhat under-utilised, with one in particular only seeming to really be used once in the entire game, but still they provide a useful sense of progression and add to the player’s feeling of growing mastery over the world around them.

After the first few early jaunts into the surrounding landscape, that function as much as an extended tutorial as anything else, a proper narrative thread emerges, and the player is plunged into an intriguing mystery. The story is paced well, and delivered excellent through some truly stand-out writing and voice acting, but still I found myself wishing I could just have carried on as a forest ranger doing mundane tasks for a little longer. The urgency that the story adds to proceedings is wonderfully executed, and surely this sense of my paradise being shattered is part of the intention of the writer, but I still resented the way it constricted my options. It feels like the game loses some of its early freedom at this point, as the player is railroaded slightly into moving from event to event.

firewatch_150615_05Nevertheless, the plot is a strong one, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything was going to resolve itself. In fact, Firewatch was cruising to “classic” status in my mind right up until the final few minutes, when frustratingly all the intrigue and confusion of the central storyline just burned away to nothing. Several new locations seem to pass in a blur and the story ends abruptly in a disappointing denouement that manages to be both implausible and unsatisfyingly mundane. Several loose ends are left hanging in this finale, which after the excellent writing that characterised most of the game makes me genuinely wonder if the developers simply ran out of money and had to rush out a slightly different ending to the one they had initially planned.

However, despite this profoundly disappointing destination, the journey through Firewatch remains a pretty remarkable experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone on the fence. I would have happily just worked as a lookout for another 3 months of game time without any narrative popping up at all, just chilling out in the canyon, enjoying the back and forth banter with Delilah, stomping out the occasional campfire and picking up litter for the entire time. That’s surely a mark of how successful this game is as an example of world-building. Fittingly, like the conflagrations you are supposed to be preventing, Firewatch ends in a bit of a mess, but while it burns, it’s really rather beautiful.

 

8/10

Firewatch was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, provided by Campo Santo

Amplitude (PS4)

amplitude-0-0Much like the career of Vernon Kay (officialvernonkay.com), the rhythm game genre seems to resurface every ten years – although unlike Vernon ‘The Crippler’ Kay, no rhythm game has yet to serve as a spokesman for Beefeater restaurants.

Rhythm games have their genesis in the year 1264 (stay with me on this) when Simon de Montfort captured King Henry III, which meant that any order given by King Henry III (the third in a trilogy is always rubbish) could be countermanded by Simon. From this was derived the parlour game ‘Simon Says’. An electronic version followed a few hundred years later and in 1996 we had a dog rapping about kung-fu onions and the perils of peritonitis. The genre surged again in 2005 with Guitar Hero, a franchise which throttled itself several thousand iterations later with the release of Guitar-Hero: Prague Philharmonic Orchestra which featured four hundred special controllers and a Multitap adapter which could be seen from the Moon.Vernon Kay
Which brings us somehow to Amplitude – a sequel to the game…er…Amplitude. Surprisingly, this is not a game about the differences between the extreme values of a given variable (I know, I was shocked too) but is in actuality a rhythm game featuring little or no references to Vernon ‘Crusher’ Kay (host of All-Star Family Fortunes). Before we find out (222 words into this review) whether it’s worth trading in your copy of Cyber Sled (PS1 – 1993) for this amplification of ‘tude, let’s read a poem that I’ve written:

Amplitude
Are you a cool dude?
Not to review you would be rude
With Vernon Kay I’m having a feud
Which may result in us getting sued

The storyline, such as it is, features an unseen patient named Sarah (although it’s never made clear that she’s a person, she could be someone’s pet chinchilla for all we know) and an experiment to raise her consciousness by sending a tiny spaceship into her brain which will blast her with electronic music. While medically dubious, you could read a subtext of the healing power of song into the game. Which is nice.amplitude-screenshot-03-ps4-ps3-us-05dec14
The quest to enlighten Sarah the chinchilla looks rather like a standard shoot ’em up, but be not fooled gentle reader, the only thing you’ll be blasting here is beats – so many, many beats. There are a few innerspaceships to select and if you’re anything like me (nearly forty, balding, conviction for public indecency) you’ll immediately choose the entertainingly-named ‘Chub’ (oo-er). So off you go in your role of futuristic super-vet, piloting your Chub down a literal and figurative track, using the L1, R1, R2 buttons (or the secret button on the underside of your controller, the one marked ‘Crenshaw’) to blast them beats to bits. Each track represents drums, bass, synth, vocals or kazoo and it’s genuinely satisfying to build each track up layer by musical layer. Unfortunately, messing up doesn’t quite yield the jarring discordance usually associated with failure in rhythm games, something which I always felt was more punishing than a simple ‘Game Over’ screen. Unlike others in the genre, your timing doesn’t have to be microsecond accurate either so you can often get away with having the same sense of rhythm as Michael J Fox playing Dance Dance Revolution. Even so, you occasionally have to be lightning quick when switching tracks.

The front-end is refreshingly minimalist and a mere three button-pushes from the game loading will fling you on your merry way, reliving the white-knuckle experience of being Simon De Montfort (or something). The game yields four levels of difficulty and I romped through ‘Beginner’ and ‘Intermediate’ inside of of three hours, though the game gets markedly tougher from there onwards. The campaign sees you travelling to different regions of Sarah’s brain, in an attempt to do whatever it is we’re trying to do to a comatose techno-chinchilla. Occasionally a disembodied voice will chime in with “We’re losing her” or “I euthanised fourteen cats this morning.”amplitude_08
I’m not sure if this sort of therapy would be for everyone though. If my father ever suffered a serious neurological breakdown, we’d have to zap his synapses with Chris DeBurgh. In my case you’d have to arouse my amygdala with “I’ve Been Thinking About You” by London Beat on continuous loop. Meanwhile: The central conceit of Amplitude is that points are awarded (and energy is retained) by completing sections of a song, rather than just being able to hit three notes out of every four. On the harder difficulty levels, this is not a game you can muddle through because the focus here is on consistency. A little forward-thinking goes a long way too.

Graphically the game is visually arresting and appropriately psychedelic although the shooter genre has seen prettier (Rez) and the rhythm genre has seen crazier (Vib Ribbon).
I suppose that’s the crux of the matter with Amplitude – it all feels a tad unambitious. Lacking a special controller, tracks by major artists, original graphical presentation or gameplay which is particularly novel, this just feels like a marginally more attractive alternative to 2006’s Frets On Fire. Sure it’s fun but the only reason to come back to this time after time, or to choose it over other titles is because you really love the music. Personally, I just thought the tracks were alright, so until Amplitude: London Beat is released, this will go back on my digital shelf to gather futuro-dust.

Vernon Kay was not harmed in the writing of this review. More’s the pity.

 

6/10

Amplitude was reviewed with a download code of the PS4 edition, provided by Brown Betty PR