I would love to know how The Last Campfire was made. Not the coding or the art, which I’ll happily admit I would not understand even if I had a lifetime of education ahead of me. But the thinking behind the design. This is a puzzle game in which puzzles are everywhere – puzzles of different types, of different approaches, puzzles operating at different levels of the construction. Somewhere I imagine a huge wall filled with paper and bits of string – one of those evidence walls from the kind of shows you get on the Alibi channel. Every idea, every gimmick, every buried connection between one part and another. Beautiful!
The Last Campfire is a game about puzzles and lost hope, I think. It’s also a follow up of sorts to the Lost Winds games from yesteryear. There’s the same core team, but also the same preoccupations – lonely rock warmed by the sun, unruly patches of grass, a faith, deep down, in the noble aspects of game design at its most rigorous. This time you are cast as Ember, a sort of flour-sack character who’s off on a dangerous and difficult journey. Along the way Ember meets various other flour-sack characters called Forlorn, who had all lapsed into various strains of despair. How does Ember pull them out of it? Puzzles.
The game’s handful of campfires are gathering areas for Forlorns who have been helped by Ember. Help them all and you can move onto another level. The puzzles that you have to solve for the Forlorns are often beautifully done. You’ll find a Forlorn out there in the world, and then the rest of the landscape will dim to darkness and be replaced by a little block of puzzle sculpture – a thing for you to solve. Push blocks, move snake-like articulated thingies around, navigate wind turbines – that’s the starter sort of stuff. If you’re itching for a game where you move light around with lenses this is the game for you! If you like switch plates and weights to keep them down, look no further!
All of that is lovely – classical, in that there’s generally a trick to solving a puzzle that harmonises with the problem that the Forlorn is dealing with. If that was The Last Campfire I would be very happy. But I’m delighted by this game – genuinely delighted – and that’s because it goes much further.
Here’s where the wall of paper and string comes in. Because the Forlorn’s puzzles are only part of the puzzley nature of this game. As Ember wanders around, it becomes apparent that the world and everything in it can be part of a puzzle. How to reach the next Forlorn? How to get to the next campfire? How to move this giant pig out of the way or flood a useless stretch of valley so you can gad about in a boat? Puzzles at different layers of the game’s construction. I am in love.
Some of these larger puzzles are genuinely magical. There is one that feels like a spin on Zelda’s confusing woods, but with a special map that… well, I don’t want to spoil it. There’s the one with the big pig. The one with – argh! I don’t want to spoil that either.
What these puzzles have in common is that they ground you in the world of The Last Campfire, a world of orchards and green grass and tumbledown monuments. A world with its own melancholia, and a world in need of someone to come along and help put things straight. At times, given the puzzley overworlds and the puzzles within the puzzles, there can be quite a lot to hold in your head. Happily, there’s an elegant prompt system, and a focus on playful tools – a key element allows you to move large objects around – that allows you to tinker your way back to enlightenment.
That you restore this world by caring for people and trying to work out what’s really troubling them is just lovely. The Last Campfire is clever, but it’s never just clever. This is a puzzle game with real heart.