Before this week, we hadn't heard much about The Last Campfire, Hello Games' pocket-sized adventure. The No Man's Sky developers had been keeping it under wraps, with the only recent news being a trailer shown at the PC Gaming Show earlier this year. But surprise! The game is out now on the Epic Store.
Studio head Sean Murray described The Last Campfire as a "Hello Games Short", which led to the expectation that it would be a relatively small game, but after playing it for a couple of hours, it's much bigger in scope than I anticipated, in both size and subject matter. Made by a small branch of developers inside Hello Games, The Last Campfire is an exploration-puzzle game about empathy, loss, and hope.
You play as a little creature called Ember, a soul who has been left to wander a mysterious world. Where you are exactly is kept a little abstract, but it's somewhere between the living realm and something else, and your job is to help other souls who have lost their way move on to whatever lies beyond this realm.
I was expecting a more or less lighthearted outlook, but it's actually a pretty melancholy game. Many of the other souls who have gotten lost have turned to stone because they lacked hope. Solving environmental puzzles will revive them, but there are plenty of souls who don't wish to move on, either refusing to accept their new fate or straight-up declining your help. Those who you do save will gather around a large campfire found in every area as a place of refuge until they can pass on. I'm enjoying this story so far and I'm glad there's some narrative depth to these cute sack creatures.
The wistful story stands in contrast to the vibrant world, which has a storybook quality to it as a voice guides you through each area, narrating what each character is saying and describing how Ember is feeling. The characters look like they've jumped out of a fairytale: fishermen with big bushy beards, enormous toads that could gobble Ember whole, and a giant bird king who looms over you from its throne.
It's all playful mischief though, and there's no actual danger as far as I've seen. You can explore at your own leisure, solving puzzles and chatting to NPCs as you go. The Last Campfire is similar to Hob or the Legend of Zelda, minus the combat. Many of the puzzles challenge you to move environmental blocks in a certain sequence, clearing a pathway to let you reach your goal, but they can also come in the form of object hunting and character fetch quests.
The only real frustration I've had is a lack of undo button when you make a wrong move, forcing you to exit the puzzle you're working on and start fresh. But even with this annoyance, most of the puzzles have so far been pretty straightforward and can be completed within ten moves or less, it's a breezy game in that respect.
The Last Campfire is a pleasant surprise. Next to No Man's Sky procedurally generated near-infinite universe, it might be fair to call it a "Hello Games Short", but it's not a mere vignette. The somber themes that underpin its peaceful, whimsical world are much bigger than its own studio gives it credit for.