The Last Campfire (2020)
Hello Games | Nintendo Switch
The friends we made along the way
The Last Campfire was part of the Nintendo Indie World showcase back in March, and it immediately grabbed my attention. With Journey-esque character design, and exclusively puzzle-based gameplay, it sounded like a promising title. The initial release date was the vague “Summer 2020,” with the game finally dropping on August 27th. With a run-time of around 5 hours, The Last Campfire is about a lost little Ember, trying to find its way to “the end” – to what end, it’s not exactly clear. It was quite a nice story given the current state of the world, about the fear of the unknown, and the hope that drives us forward regardless. Though plagued by the feeling that a certain something was missing from this title, I generally enjoyed traversing the unknowns of the world as Ember, and guiding them through to their journey’s end.
Our Ember seeks to aid the Forlorn – the Embers who have started their journey, but became lost and despondent along the way. Eventually paralyzed by despair, they have turned to stone. By understanding their experiences, and empathizing with their turmoil, you can free them from their fate. Also, you’ll need to solve a puzzle. As you do. In gameplay terms, this means entering a “puzzle void,” an area unique to each Forlorn that requires the solving of said puzzle to help them. Once a puzzle is solved, our Ember can collect a small flame, once locked away, but freed by our efforts, which rekindles the hope of the Forlorn. Upon being reanimated, the Forlorn will gather at the campfire central to each main area (of which there are 3). You may also come across some exceptions – Forlorn that do not want to be assisted. They may not be ready to let go and move on yet, and that’s okay.
Each campfire requires a certain number of Forlorn to be rescued, with the resident Campfire ghost available for hints, and other assistance if needed. Once all the Forlorn are rescued, the way forward opens, and our Ember can press on. The areas around and between the campfires are also dotted with puzzles (hmm, how to retrieve that key to unlock the gate?) that are incorporated beautifully into the story and environment. Another small detail that I really enjoyed was all the Embers and Forlorn being referred to as “they.” It felt so much more natural for these cloth-like creatures to be referred to as such.
I was generally impressed by the puzzle design in this title, particularly with their intuitive nature. This is perhaps partly due to the game’s fairly standard puzzle fare (i.e. moving blocks, directing beams of light, understanding patterns) but nonetheless, it was well executed. There were no tutorials, or how-to’s provided by the game, and it wasn’t needed. As soon as I walked into a certain puzzle, I instinctively understood exactly what was required of me. Even if it didn’t click immediately, after a short period of trial and error, I was able to pick it up quickly.
There was one puzzle in the Forest section that had some patterned floor tiles (frogs and turtles) over a chasm – jumping on certain tiles sent my Ember into the abyss below. I tried for several minutes to understand how to reach the other side – different combinations of frog/turtle, making sure I was facing a certain way when jumping on tiles – but nothing was working. I left the small cave, and realized that the same tiles framed the door leading inside – the pattern frog, frog, turtle (I think) repeating. I went back in and made sure to hop on the tiles in that particular order, and sure enough, I reached the other side in one piece. Though not necessarily easy, everything just makes sense, which I find extremely important in a puzzle-based game.
The variations in puzzle sequences were one of the highlights in The Last Campfire, along with their design. They build upon each other, and increase in difficulty as the game continues. Once the Lanthorn is introduced, a musical instrument which allows Ember to manipulate certain metal structures and blocks, the puzzles really hit their stride. A common “move these blocks to create a walkable path” puzzle will evolve to “find a way to stack these blocks to move them to different heights.” Or, the ones I struggled with have a torch on one face of the block – you’ll have to find a path to roll it around while keeping the flame from facing the scattered wind generators. If your flame goes out, you’ll have to start over. The natural evolution of puzzles, which build upon your knowledge of previous tests, is executed perfectly. There are also a variety of smaller quests outside the Forlorn, that require interacting with other denizens of the world – like the Builder, the Cook, and the Fisherman – collecting items, or simply helping the creatures you come across.
Because this puzzle completion occupies the bulk of the game, the story often takes a bit of a backseat. While I did enjoy the framework that the story establishes, in the journey of the Embers, and their very human struggles along the way, it lacked a compelling thread that made me want to play the game. I can’t quite put my finger on it (and it’s entirely possible that this was just a “me” problem) but there was something missing. Though the game has a short run-time, it took me several weeks to complete, simply because I felt no urge to sit down with it. Take a game like Journey – it wordlessly outlines the “goal” of the game, and creates a world that drives you forward through a combination of evocative music and brilliant environments, toward the peak of that mountain. I felt like that need was absent from The Last Campfire – the desire to push toward the finale wasn’t there. It’s easy to get invested in certain small elements, but the overall tale was somewhat lackluster until the very end. I damn near cried after the Builder made me my duck boat, and I had to leave them alone in the dark caves. While it certainly had its moments of gravity, and characters that I admit I got very attached to, the overarching story wasn’t quite as strong as it could have been.
Part of this detachment came from the narration present throughout the game. I felt like the narrator would have been better utilized, had her voice just been present during the moments of story, rather than story, dialogue, and inner thought. If I can make another comparison to Journey: while none of the characters have speaking voices, just musical chimes to communicate, they were still able to convey certain emotions using different tones. While The Last Campfire did this, it was more of a background element; they could have foregrounded the musical tones and simply had the text while the Forlorn are speaking, rather than having the narrator speak for everyone. The voice lends a certain storybook quality to the narrative, but I didn’t wholly enjoy it. Ultimately, it created a sense of separation between the story and the player, which I felt negatively impacted the power of the narrative. Seeing a beautifully designed, sinister character like the Forest King, only to be voiced by a young girl, just didn’t quite work for me.
All of these issues are quite small, and fairly subjective, but my biggest complaint about this title is its literal performance. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a game where most of my criticisms are based entirely on the technical aspects. The Last Campfire suffers from quite a few hiccups, in terms of performance – for instance, the framerate stutters every time you approach a Forlorn to begin a puzzle sequence. It drops to the point where it’s almost like you’re viewing a standstill image, that eventually rolls over into the start of the puzzle, rather than a smooth, movie-like transition. There was the occasional framerate drop in other sections, but none so noticeable as the example above. There was also a particular Forlorn in the Cave area that didn’t load in, so all I could see was a strange, warped version of the background environment, which was extremely confusing for a few seconds. Though it wasn’t a huge deal, it was unexpected to see an otherwise polished game struggle with such foundational elements.
There’s a lot to like in The Last Campfire: the environments, like the Forest, Marsh, and Caves speak well to the themes of loneliness, isolation, and feeling lost. Conversely, the the campfires also work as a strong symbol that supports one of the central ideas of the narrative – that a place of warmth, of light, are all these Embers need. Once they’re gathered, having found each other, they’re ready to move on. However, despite its gorgeous, whimsical visuals and compelling concept, The Last Campfire simply lacks a certain spark, that resonance that grabs your attention and worms its way into your mind and your heart; the kind that stays with you, even after the game is over. Despite this shortcoming, and its various technical pitfalls, the game truly does excel in its loveable creatures (with the sympathetic Forlorn, and friends you meet along the way) and heartfelt tale. It’s a story that recognizes, most importantly, that not all journeys are without hesitation and doubt. Though one may falter, or stumble, being waylaid is no failure; sometimes, all we need to find the strength to push on is the light of promise that someone else can give. Whether that’s with a helping hand, or just a listening ear, sometimes all it takes is knowing that we’re not alone. That those who have trod the path before us can guide those that come after – wherever that path may lead.