It can be difficult to find the time in our busy schedules to think about our personal hopes and fears. It is so easy to internalise and not see what’s happening around us. To me that makes games that stay with you and make you consider things truly special experiences. The Last Campfire caught my eye and imagination from the first trailer, and I was curious to learn more about this very different and personal game from developer and publisher Hello Games. It focuses on narrative and atmosphere over the pomp and (not so much) circumstance of their previous game No Man’s Sky, and this change of direction is certainly for the best.
The opening cutscene really sets the tone in The Last Campfire, it’s eerie and ensnaring. You see some small hooded creatures in boats paddling to an unknown destination, with one traveller lagging behind. Distracted by a bird, the slower traveller finds themselves going down the creek with no paddle, separated from the others who travel through a glowing gate. All alone, the traveller floats into darkness, finding themselves in a place where there’s one way out if they can find it. You play as Ember, a blue, androgynous and quiet character who is oddly endearing despite not making a peep the whole game.
Having a separate dimension for puzzles allows for lots of variety
As an adventure puzzle game, there are limited controls. You guide Ember around and interact with objects to collect items, solve overworld puzzles and save forlorn embers, similar creatures to you who have become petrified by losing hope which prevents them from travelling to the ‘end’. In each major area there is a central campfire occupied by a ghost who acts as a guide and will allow you to move forward once all of the forlorn in the area are saved. When you interact with a forlorn you are transported into another dimension with a puzzle that must be solved in order to retrieve the life spark of the forlorn ember, which when exposed to their body revives them, no mandrakes required. The puzzles start off simple but do scale in difficulty. After the first area you unlock the Lanthorn, a sacred instrument that can move certain objects, which gets integrated into puzzles from then on. There are also puzzles in the overworld that you need to solve in order to find all of the forlorn as well as the only collectible in the game, journal fragments (40 in total). Journal fragments are not merely meaningless collectibles, but also offer story elements, telling the story of a previous traveller’s experiences in this world. The nature of the gameplay in its calm simplicity allows you to watch the story unfold and not get frustrated while taking delight in discovering all of this world’s secrets. If puzzles aren’t your thing you can play the game in explore mode, which reduces the number of puzzles allowing a more story-driven experience.
Even the worms in this game have character
Ember doesn’t directly utter a word, but the story and details are narrated by a gentle female voice as you progress through the puzzles, or as you interact or gain items. The narration will just play out as you explore which results in a smooth experience, with inputs required to progress in targeted conversations. As you work through a puzzle, the insight into the feelings of each forlorn and what’s troubling through them is unearthed through the narrator. This adds a deep story layer to each puzzle, making the feelings and troubles experienced by the forlorn feel very real, which is a testament to the writing in this game.
The writing is detailed, personal and highly relatable, connecting the player deeply to the game. Though conversation with the array of animal and spiritual characters are brief, they ooze personality and charm, and interactions with other lost embers provided many laughs and much food for thought. The overarching message of looking out for yourself and what you care for is repeated throughout the game and really imparts a feeling of empowerment and support.
Just one of the many beautiful environments in this game
Whether or not the deeper themes resonate with you, the amazing art style is sure to make an impression. It feels alive – at times beautifully colourful or depressingly dark, but always wonderfully crafted. Given the amazing scenery, I certainly didn’t mind traversing areas multiple times to solve overworld puzzles and sniff out all of the hidden stories and collectibles. The cute, simple character design of Ember and his fellow embers are also very endearing, and even though their faces show no emotion, through the writing you feel exactly what you should. The transitions of text bubbles and major area changes matches the theme of embers and smoke, adding additional character. The writing and ambience is further supported by a lo-fi soundtrack, which, while simple, is critical to the lively nature of this world but is not so outlandish as to distract you from the gentle details.
While the game does look great on Switch, there are intermittent frame drops throughout, in particular when interacting with forlorn, and a couple of minor glitches that are not game breaking but can be jarring and ruin the mood. I hope performance on Switch may be improved later, though it could take some time as Hello Games is a small studio, but I wouldn’t avoid this game based purely on the technical hiccups. While the game is a short experience (around six hours), it is certainly a memorable and enjoyable one, and I think the game is jam packed enough with detail that it is deserving of its price point.
Another forlorn saved
The Last Campfire is a magical mix of puzzles and story elements in a world which bursts with colour and retreats into somberness in equal measure, with a powerful message relevant to everyone. I wouldn’t sleep on this game, unless it’s around the campfire with a roasted frog (a delicacy apparently).
Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher