Review: The Last Campfire (Switch)

A masterful trip through the gap between life and death.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 09/07/2020 07:09 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
Editor's Choice
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Stunning presentation; powerful narrative delivered through a polished voiceover; fun puzzles; gorgeous presentation
Poison Mushroom for...
Some dialogue becomes distracting when it doesn't reflect changes to the game world; the environment has some areas where the camera has trouble tracking; got stuck in a chunk of the environment at one point and had to reset the game

Hello Games intrigued me with its announcement of The Last Campfire because it looked so wildly different from the studio’s previous effort, No Man’s Sky. The Last Campfire’s trailer boasted cartoon-like characters and a bright, colorful fantasy world full of puzzles not far removed from a Legend of Zelda game. When I started it for the first time last weekend, I didn’t expect to be so thoroughly sucked into the experience that I would beat it in a single night. At almost exactly seven hours of play, I found myself stunned at what a tight, engaging, and moving game I’d just played.

In The Last Campfire, the player is introduced to a group of beings called embers. They’re in transit to what is heavily implied to be their final resting place. The game revolves around the nominal Ember, who awakens all alone and is trying to find their way (Ember is written with they/them pronouns, which I’ll adhere to for this review). Ember’s mission is to find wayward fellow travelers who have slipped into a sort of fugue state where they’re dubbed the forlorn. As Ember journeys through the game world, with each forlorn they stumble upon they must work to return these lost souls to consciousness so that they can then complete their trip.

Reminiscent of Supergiant Games’ Bastion, the actions of Ember are partially narrated by an omniscient voice (played by Scandinavian voice actor Rachel August). Although never identified or acknowledged in-game, this narration is ever present and a huge part of The Last Campfire. August’s voice is almost ethereal in its delivery. Ember is a soft and gentle creature, acting selflessly to rescue all of their lost fellow travelers. August’s narration perfectly compliments Ember’s actions and helps convey the purity of their motivations. Ember can choose to move on at any time, but instead opts to persevere. Without the narration, a massive amount of The Last Campfire’s tone and spirit would be lost.

There is the option to simply give up on the forlorn, but to do so is more a way for players who are stuck in the game to be able to proceed and still finish the story. In terms of accessibility, this will be a welcome addition for less skilled and younger players, although I would advise to try and stick it out. None of the various sokoban-style (Japanese term for puzzle games that involve pushing and pulling objects) puzzles are so taxing that some trial and error won’t light the way. I ran into maybe one or two puzzles throughout the entirety of The Last Campfire that I struggled with, and I would wager it was more from my end than Hello Games’ that I got stuck.

The puzzles themselves are the sort of brain teasers that are a pleasure to solve despite not being overly challenging to figure out. The act of arranging and sliding different elements within the puzzles to attain victory is in and of itself soothing and enjoyable. It was clever how Hello Games incorporated the puzzles into the narrative. Ember initiates them by approaching a frozen forlorn, with each puzzle serving as an allegory of sorts for how that particular forlorn wound up in their current predicament. August’s voice over sheds light on their plight as well as Ember’s actions. This use of the puzzles allows them to shine as integral bits of the story without feeling arbitrarily tacked on.

There are three main areas to explore in The Last Campfire, with a linear path between each. Exploring these areas is like traipsing through a child’s picture book. The locales are rather typical fantasy fare—forests and mazes and grassy fields abound. Yet, thanks to a sophisticated color palette and some very creative character designs, the game never veers into looking or feeling overly saccharine. An enormous frog and pig are a couple of standouts, especially the latter with its glowing, protruding belly. The Last Campfire features zero combat, so the game world and puzzles do a lot of heavy lifting to keep the player invested. Wanting to see what was around the next bend propelled me through the game that night and will likely do the same for anyone else booting up The Last Campfire for the first time.

There are a handful of presentation blemishes that crept up on me during my playthrough. Some of the world layout has gaps and pathways that lead to nothing but aren’t inaccessible to the player. I found Ember walking places that I thought they could go only for the camera to stop tracking, sometimes making it difficult to reposition and get back on the main road. I had to reset entirely at one point after getting stuck. There were no noteworthy performance dips during my session, although occasionally the system would chug—thankfully it was nothing that impeded gameplay. I did find it odd that Hello Games didn’t change certain characters’ dialogue to coincide with alterations to the game world. One ember speaks of an environmental feature completely oblivious to the massive transformation it undergoes right before their eyes. It took away slightly from the otherwise pristine sense of immersion that The Last Campfire provides.

At the heart of The Last Campfire is the mystery of the identity of The Wanderer and what their fascination is with Ember. I will spoil nothing—the story is brief and should be experience firsthand for maximum impact—but I will say that I thought the payoff was very well done. How much The Last Campfire’s seeming commentary on purgatory, life, and death will vary from player to player. For me, I found the narrative moving, with its morose and bittersweet tone bringing to mind a lot of personal thoughts in relation to Ember’s quest. Themes of acceptance, friendship, and more all pop up throughout this brief adventure, and I would often take pause to ruminate over my own interpretations of what was unfolding before me. It’s subtle storytelling that never beats its messaging over the player’s head—it’s something I wish more video game developers could learn to emulate.

My play session lasted seven hours, but the game can be beaten in around five if you don’t dawdle like me (I also got myself lost, which is better left discussed… never). There are hidden journal entries to discover that lend some flavor to the story and help pad out playtime (they’re also worth the effort to locate). The Last Campfire doesn’t bring anything new to the video game lexicon, instead deciding to innovate with established and beloved tropes and mechanics. While most players won’t be challenged by the game’s puzzles, the way that they’re solved is quite pleasing and will compel most to want to seek out and save all of the embers. By the time I finished The Last Campfire, the sun was already popping up and I felt a strong sense of melancholy. I don’t often get moved by a video game from an emotional standpoint, but this was definitely one of those times. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking journey that the industry needs more of.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Log In 0 points Log in or register to grow your Ninja Score while interacting with our site.
Nintendojo's RSS Feeds

All Updates Podcast
News Comments
Like and follow usFacebookTwitter Friend Code Exchange + Game with Us Join the Team!