Combat-free Zelda from the creators of No Man's Sky
When picturing what No Man’s Sky developer Hello Games might choose as their next title, I don’t think any of us could have pegged The Last Campfire: A compact, mesmerizing, and story-focused puzzle/adventure game that stands in stark contrast to their previous work. However, it is precisely The Last Campfire’s place as an unknown that immediately drew me in. And once I was in, it was bittersweet saying goodbye.
The Last Campfire tells the story of a lost ember in a strange place, just trying to find their way out. Ember, a name that seemingly refers both to the individual and their kind, will encounter “forlorn” along their way. These are other embers who have been overcome and lost their hope along the path out of this mysterious place. By making contact with them, Ember can hear their anxieties and help them work through a puzzle to bring back a literal spark of hope. Once revitalized, these embers can return to one of several campfires, which act as a sort of path leading the embers forward. Gameplay in general feels a bit like one giant Zelda dungeon. Each room presents new puzzles as you search for the forlorn embers and new campfires. A ghost is present at each campfire who will tell you how many forlorn remain in the area, as well as give you clues to finding them. All forlorn must be helped before you can proceed. In addition to the forlorn embers, you’ll also meet other inhabitants of this world. They can be helped as well and will aid Ember with items needed to solve puzzles.
Ember’s abilities are fairly limited, especially at first. They cannot jump and merely interact with items by pushing or picking things up. Eventually, Ember gains a horn that they can use to manipulate metal objects from afar. This ability is used to great effect for a variety of puzzle elements. For example, early puzzles will have you rolling cubes onto switches. Later, these cubes will need to be stacked by dropping them off of platforms. Further in, they’ll have a torch on one side that needs to be protected from the wind. Some are only solid on one side and will require careful consideration in order to get them right side up so they can be used as a bridge. There are many more elements than these cubes, and each is used in a startling variety of scenarios that seem to never repeat themselves in quite the same way. Every puzzle is something new and never overstays its welcome.
A narrator carries the entire story of the Last Campfire. Each character is voiced by her, in addition to every action and scene description. There is a storybook quality to the presentation that for the most part works excellently. I did notice towards the end of the game that the narrator would occasionally cut herself off during cutscenes. It was as if the timing allowed for the voiceover wasn’t quite right. The only other significant hiccup I encountered was a moment towards the very end where some characters and environments loaded up where they shouldn’t have been. It didn’t actually affect my gameplay at all but did cause some momentary confusion.
The music is wonderful and varied while never getting repetitive. It knows exactly when to hang back and when to come to the forefront. Each area seemed to have its own auditory theme as well, so I almost never heard the same piece twice. Visually, The Last Campfire holds up superbly on Switch. In handheld mode, it appears to run at the Switch’s native 720p resolution and looks perfect. The resolution is similar when docked and holds up well enough depending on your TV size. There are definitely some minor performance issues throughout; most of these are centered around interacting with the forlorn. When doing so, Ember transitions to an entirely new map and quickly loading in this new environment seems to cause some stutters. However at various points throughout the map I’d also encounter a brief pause, presumably tied to loading as well. As there is no combat nor strict timed events in The Last Campfire, neither of these were much of a problem in the grand scheme of things.
The Last Campfire carries with it heavy undertones of sadness and loneliness. The exact details of its world and characters, and even the nature of its ending, are somewhat left to player interpretation. Undeniably, however, there is a theme of dealing with depression and isolation. There is a common trait among the forlorn of becoming lost when they were alone, and just needing Ember to listen. The current real world conditions of pandemic, quarantine, and separation will no doubt cause these themes to land even harder. The Last Campfire’s themes of being willing not only to ask for help but to listen to those who have are incredibly important.
I wanted to play The Last Campfire because I was curious what Hello Games could do with this type of game. What I found was a story I needed, and a game I didn’t want to put down. You’ll likely pull some of your own meaning out of The Last Campfire’s world and characters, but it is a meaning worth looking for. Beyond its narrative value is an excellently designed puzzle adventure that manipulates a few simple mechanics in an incredible variety of ways. The Switch version does have some performance issues and wasn’t without an odd glitch or two, but these were momentary setbacks in a wonderful journey. While the entirety of the Last Campfire only lasts around five hours, it is an adventure you’re unlikely to forget anytime soon.