‘The Last Campfire’ Review: Hello Games’ Small Adventure Effortlessly Charms
Hello Games is preparing for a new, large-scale, big-on-ambition game to follow its success with No Man's Sky - and frankly, who can blame them? From a shaky start, the Guildford-based studio has built the interstellar explore 'em up into one of the most riveting go-anywhere, do-anything sci-fi adventures gaming has ever seen. But Hello's not only about grand scale and amazing visions - as The Last Campfire proves, they can do 'small' really quite brilliantly, too.
The work of a team within the wider Hello Games team, who'd previously worked on WiiWare launch title LostWinds (lovely game, that), The Last Campfire is the story of Ember, a lost soul trapped in a place between the living and the afterlife, who finds themself having to locate others who've given up on moving on - forlorns, as they're called in-game - and are similarly stuck in this curiously pretty and puzzles-filled limbo.
This absolutely isn't "Dark Souls, but cute" - and yet, thematically, it feels somewhat akin to it. The forlorns are hollowed-out, despairing people, who need help to find their way to whatever's next for them. They're at their ends, but haven't reached their final destinations just yet. Each is a sad sight indeed - a broken spirit, that cannot take flight.
At each one of the game's campfires, a ghost will instruct Ember where to go in order to bring them enough forlorn to move to the next area. Upon reaching these forlorn(s) - a process that can involve finding keys or fiery torches, manipulating the environment or speaking with non-forlorn NPCs (some sweet, some decidedly creepy) - Ember effectively enters their minds. And there they find puzzles - puzzles that must be solved to stir the forlorn at rest.
This is the bulk of The Last Campfire's gameplay - physics-based puzzles that play out like mini Zelda dungeons, or the shrines in Breath of the Wild. Sometimes you roll wheels and flip switches; in others, you pick up statues and move them between pressure points, or redirect beams of light within dank caves. One early(ish) puzzle puts two gigantic metal cubes at your control via a magnet-like device, and you need to manipulate them to go up a few platforms - and it really threw me for about 10 minutes. Any longer and I'd have maybe turned to a guide, but when it clicked it was a surprisingly palpable thrill.
A bigger, outside-a-forlorn puzzle that uses stone map tiles is an absolute delight, as Ember shifts pieces around on a wall to change the actual world around them, and open up new areas. But while there's the odd few minutes of feeling a bit stuck, nothing's ever overly taxing. The point here isn't to reach a dead end and give up through frustration, but to receive a steadily measured feeling of accomplishment as each puzzle ticks by, and for your brain to buzz delightfully with each success.
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Completion of each puzzle allows Ember to free a spark that subsequently encourages the forlorn in question to journey to the campfire in the surrounding area. Head back there, and you'll find them hanging out with the ghost; and every forlorn who settles by the fire has their own, small-but-unique story to tell. Not every forlorn you will come across in the game wants to be helped, which adds some gravitas to the process; but tick off those who do and it's onto the next location, the next campfire and the next array of head-scratchers.
The Last Campfire's individual anecdotes - every forlorn feels unique - and wider narrative alike are wrapped up in its narrator's bedtime-story-soft voice-over, a feature that some might find annoying but I enjoyed a great deal. (Perhaps because I've spent so much time reading to my own children over the last nine years, it's nice to have someone read to me?) And by its end, some seven hours or so after Ember's adventure began, the tale wraps with the kind of precision finality you find in the best children's picture-books - the page turns, the credits roll, and everything feels right.
The Last Campfire might not be big, but it's clever in all the ways that matter, using its puzzles to represent relatable concerns and obstacles that, sometimes, need a little helping hand to overcome. It's a succinct, complete, so-called 'small' game that's actually got more substance to it than many narrative titles billed as brief experiences, and greater emotional depth than its artwork might suggest. It's a memorable adventure that will appeal to anyone who prefers a mental challenge to a physical one, and who cherishes the small things that make us all who we are, for better and worse.
Pros: surprisingly relatable stories; great puzzle design; enchanting visuals and beautiful music
Cons: some performance blips on Switch, but nothing so bad as to break the immersion
For fans of: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (and the more recent Link's Awakening remake), Celeste, Spiritfarer
The Last Campfire is out now for Nintendo Switch (version tested), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Epic Games Store, Steam in 2021). Review code was provided by Hello Games. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Featured Image Credit: Hello Games
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