This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
Hello Games has had an interesting decade; founded in 2008, they released their first game (Joe Danger) in 2010 and after many highs and lows – all well documented for both the good and the bad – have now released The last campfire, which is the studio’s first 2020 game. In a lot of ways, Joe Danger and The last campfire are different games, but in one way they are quite similar; they both took an established genre and did something smart with it, alongside great execution of what that genre was always supposed to be. Joe Danger brought accessibility and two genres together (racing and platforming), while also using influences such as Tony Hawk and Sonic to create a unique and fondly remembered game; The last campfire takes puzzle platformers and gives them a cool makeover, interconnected world, and a smartly executed storybook feel to a dark and serious subject. Neither of those games attempted to or rewrote the book on those genres, but (unlike No Man’s Sky) their best qualities are about the iteration and lessons learned from other games.
In The last campfire, players take the role of Ember who is a lost soul and must help other forlorn souls find the missing purpose/hope they once had; this is accomplished by solving puzzles, and by doing so, players get to progress to new areas and get new tools to solve more elaborate and difficult puzzles. First off, the puzzles are surprisingly deep and understated in their challenge. That’s not to suggest that it is a difficult game, but at first glimpse, you may expect something decisively more casual, but The last campfire strives really hard to nail that perfect balance of “easy enough to not get stuck, but challenging enough to make you think” and achieves its goal after a couple of hours. What stands out to me the most about the puzzles is the pacing of them: The next area will always iterate on the previous one and add a new layer to explore. However, as the game wants you to think about your environment and explore this majestic world, sometimes this may ask the player to do something that isn’t immediately apparent, which did happen to me once and it took a bit to make progress. Besides that, I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzles and gameplay of The last campfire.
What’s really clever about the puzzles – and the game as a whole – is how they are integrated with the narrative, to create a cohesive whole. The story is clearly inspired by fairy tales and uses that format to discuss and explore life, dying, and how we deal with that realization. Most of the puzzles are about Ember helping other forlorn get past their issues that have kept them from moving on, so they are all framed around an idea or a fear about dying, however they are also bittersweet in nature as you help lost souls find their way, but that way will lead to them leaving this plain forever. This gives the entire game a great atmosphere to soak in and immerse yourself into, and creates a casual puzzle experience that is as poignant as it is relaxing and challenging. Another highlight was the narrator Rachel August who explains and guides the player throughout the events; first off, she does all the voices for all the characters in the game, because she’s the one narrating the fairy tale you’re playing and needs to distinguish between characters with a different tone and accent. Secondly, she does a great job at it and is a big reason why this game maintains the atmosphere throughout its runtime.
Alongside the consistent and smart atmosphere created by the narrative, the visuals and audio design do an outstanding job at atmosphere as well; the visuals, in particular, are smooth and easy to the eye – almost like a modern fairy tale – with some great animation work and little details that help give the characters and the world a lot of character, charm, and melancholy in certain moments. The audio is less good; audio design is not something I usually notice (and The last campfire is no exception), but the music is a missed opportunity as it is hidden in the background and is unremarkable, when it could have punctuated and elevated a lot of the pivotal moments.
Overall, The last campfire is a GREAT game that shows Hello Games are not done making unique and interesting games, in favor of larger, blockbuster experiences. They showed some real creativity in the design and narrative of the game, alongside solid execution and innovation of established genres; to think this is also a project that 3 people did most the work on and is referred to as a “short”, only has me excited to see what the team can do together or what the next, passionate “short” may look like.