The Last Campfire Review
[Editor’s Note: We missed The Last Campfire when it first came out in August, but we’ve since had time to circle back and highlight this lovely game.]
Finding light in the darkness is something we can all relate to — whether it be as simple as discovering the solution to a small puzzle or as grand a notion as searching for one’s purpose in life. The Last Campfire addresses both ends of this spectrum and does so throughout with charm, smarts, and grace. Hello Games’ short-ish adventure hits the mark with cleverly designed puzzles, eye-catching style, and a touching story that left me feeling anything but forlorn.
Forlorns, in this world, are lost souls scattered around the colourful land of The Last Campfire; they’ve seemingly abandoned all hope and feel bereft of a purpose. This is in stark contrast to our character, Ember, whose purpose appears more predestined; Ember makes their way through forests, swamps, and caves trying to help as many lost souls as possible, while also questioning what their purpose in the world is. By lighting campfires along the way you’re helping guide the Forlorns on their journey and allowing them to follow in your footsteps. Granted, you never quite know where those footsteps will take them, but by showing the Forlorns that they exist, you allow them to see that there is always light worth finding in the darkness. It was a clear and ultimately highly rewarding journey as I became more and more invested in the world and the creatures calling it home.
Progress is made through solving consistently enjoyable puzzles that almost always hit that sweet spot of not being so simple that they’re boring but being challenging enough to satisfy upon solving, without becoming so complicated that it induces groans. Special items and novel mechanics are introduced throughout which prevent the puzzles from ever becoming too repetitive, and while there maybe isn’t quite the level of variation you’d expect over its six or seven hours, it never fails to offer up something new just before it reaches a point of becoming stale. One of the biggest additions is the fun telekinetic-like ability that comes into play about halfway through the story, and it’s used in many of the subsequent puzzles in clever ways. Manipulating objects from a distance using this provides a welcome breath of fresh air and allows for more ingenious puzzles to be solved in new satisfying ways.
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Hello’s inspirations are clear to see, and not least in the design of these puzzle rooms. It’s hard not to be reminded of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s many shrines — though there’s no combat at all in The Last Campfire, and this is where different Nintendo influence becomes visible. The minimal approach to gameplay (you can walk, run, pick up, and push and pull objects, but that’s about it) combined with Ember’s inability to jump adds shades of the delightful Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker into the mix.
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With such a limited set of button inputs you’d think it would be difficult to keep things fresh over an extended length of time, but The Last Campfire rarely has trouble there due to its creative use of what it has. It does a fantastic job of constantly mixing things up and keeping these problems thematically relevant, never once taking you out of its gloriously crafted world. The way that meaning is weaved into the design of each puzzle makes The Last Campfire stand out against many similar games and does so smartly at each turn.
The core theme of preserving hope and purpose can be found at every turn, often subtly, but sometimes literally baked into the mechanics of a puzzle. This is most obviously exemplified in a series of problems that have you transport an open flame through a level while avoiding airstreams that will cause the fire to extinguish. These start off simple but build in complexity as Ember’s story progresses, providing just one example of how well The Last Campfire takes its central ideas and grows them into something special.
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As with any game in this genre there’ll always be puzzles that feel too easy and are over in seconds — there aren’t many of these but they can be found near the start where a few simple block pushes can form a path for Ember. On the opposite end of the spectrum are more complex problems that, although never too difficult, do offer a significant but satisfying challenge. Naturally, these occur nearer the end of Ember’s journey and smartly layer mechanics you’ve learned previously with new ideas. Some of my favourites of these involved telekinetically moving around a chained set of snake statues with mirrors attached to solve a reflection-based light puzzle.
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This type of puzzle is another example of guiding the light through the darkness; again, Hello puts the core themes of The Last Campfire on display for all to see. This can also be seen in the art design, which beautifully offsets the bleakness with bright and colourful splashes. The most obvious example of this being Ember’s vivid blue clothing and glowing eyes that pop off of the screen during each scene alongside the relaxing, subtle music that soundtracks your journey. Environments range from waterway-filled caverns to pig-infested marshlands, each with their own quirks and pop-up book-ish charm. It’s an inviting world to play in, like Thatgamecompany painting from a Media Molecule palette, evoking both Journey and Tearaway in equal measure.
Indeed, the storybook nature of The Last Campfire can’t be ignored. From finding lost book pages written in melancholic ink littered around the world to the larger-than-life creatures (literally, in the case of a quite monstrous pig) you’ll meet on your travels. I particularly enjoyed bumping into and helping out a wistful fisherman by a lake and a talkative robot who gleefully reminded me of Tik-Tok from Return to Oz.
Perhaps the most folktale-like aspect to all of it, though, is the way in which the story itself is told. Brilliantly narrated by Rachel August, it’s spoken entirely in third person and calls out actions as you make them in a way that’s hugely reminiscent of Bastion’s storytelling technique (a design choice that has bafflingly still been used sparingly outside of Supergiant). Not only does the narrator tell the story in a fable-like manner – voicing all of the characters like a parent reading a bedtime story – but also offers moments of encouragement to Ember as their journey continues, effectively acting as a passive ally.
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The story it tells is one that any age can relate to. Taking pages out of Aesop’s Fables and Grimm Brothers tales it touches on real-world problems in fantastical ways, cleverly disguising mature themes in easily digestible ways by having many of the characters suffering from things like anxiety or loss. It still managed to magically put a smile on my face throughout, though, building to an impactful and emotionally packed finale that serves as a fitting end to Ember’s odyssey.