If we can posit that there are three main genres of video games – shooting, it’s about depression, and Nintendo – The Last Campfire is definitely about depression. You play as a childlike little creature called an “ember” (who are like the red-robed creatures in Journey, but baby) that is either dying or already dead, and your goal is to move on to the afterlife. Along the way, you’re tasked with helping other embers that have gotten psychologically stuck and are unable to complete the journey on their own.
There are four main areas of the game – forest, swamp, marsh, and cave – and you have to help four embers from each area before you can progress to the next. To help an ember, you must first locate it in the overworld before entering its inner world, which consists of a single puzzle or short series of puzzles, all of which are spatial in nature and generally involve moving blocks or floor tiles. None of the puzzles are timed or involve physical dexterity, and you can reset each puzzle by leaving the headspace of the ember and returning. There’s no penalty for this, and loading times are super short, thankfully.
The game has an easy mode that simplifies the puzzles, but all of the puzzles are already so simple and self-explanatory (even for a dumb-dumb like myself) that this isn’t necessary. In fact, I’m going to say that playing on easy mode might actually be more difficult, as it removes some of the discrete steps intended to teach you how the game wants you to solve each puzzle. Either way, nothing important is actively hidden from the player, so you can solve most puzzles just by fooling around with them for long enough.
The difficult thing about The Last Campfire is locating the lost embers in the first place. Like a Zelda game, the overworld has its own share of puzzles, and it’s rarely self-evident where you’re supposed to go. There is zero signposting, and all of the screens that comprise an area have multiple entrances and exits (some of which are one-way), meaning that it’s easy to get lost. It’s also not immediately clear what you can and can’t interact with, and I have to admit that I had to consult a walkthrough very early on to learn that the player is expected to find and physically touch the ossified bodies of the lost embers in order to solve their puzzles and progress through the game.
Unlike the individual ember puzzles, it’s easy to get stuck in the overworld and not know what the game wants you to do. Although it’s fun to explore the beautiful environments, I think The Last Campfire would have greatly benefited from some sort of map. For me, this was the difference between the game taking three hours (which I think is supposed to be an optimal playtime) and taking almost six hours, which I mainly spent getting lost and having to consult various YouTube videos to figure out where I was supposed to go and what specific object I was supposed to interact with.
I think that the game could also have benefited from giving you the option to turn off the voice acting. The English version of the game is narrated by a woman with the exact accent and vocal pitch and timbre of Björk. While this narration was cool at first, it gradually began to grate on me, especially when I would get frustrated. The actress sometimes puts a heavy “w” sound in some of her lines (as in, “the ember had mispwaced a memowy”), which can get a little too close to Elmer Fudd territory if you’re listening to the same line being repeated for the fifth time while re-entering an area or restarting a puzzle.
(I should say that I don’t mean to hate on Icelandic accents, which are lovely. Still, I think creating a Pavlovian association between frustration and someone’s voice has the potential to generate annoyance at anyone’s accent and vocal patterns.)
The Last Campfire isn’t as chill and relaxing as it seems to want to be, and most people are probably going to have to play it at least partially with a walkthrough; not because it’s actually difficult, but rather because of what I think it’s fair to call a certain immaturity of game design. Still, it’s an interesting little game, especially during the periods when it’s better about subtly guiding the player forward.
In a lot of ways, The Last Campfire reminds me of a 1992 Super Nintendo game called Soul Blazer, which was a very simple and sweet game about freeing the souls of a cursed world’s inhabitants by entering the dungeonlike spaces of their minds. It’s a neat concept, especially in the visual contrast both games display between the lush natural spaces of the outer world and the barren and overly complicated spaces of the inner worlds of individual minds. I also appreciate that both games acknowledge and respect the fact that not everyone wants to be “saved” by a hero. As one ember in The Last Campfire puts it: Not every problem is a puzzle to be solved.
More than anything, it’s the visual landscape of The Last Campfire that appealed to me, especially in combination with the atmospheric ambient music and the crisp sound design. I think that, if you enjoy this sort of game, the merits of The Last Campfire outweigh its flaws. I also think it has a decent replay value, if only in the sense that it may be more enjoyable to play for the second time once you know where everything is and what you’re supposed to do.
Almost everyone who’s written about The Last Campfire has mentioned encountering a few glitches and frame rate issues. I played the game on the Nintendo Switch Lite and had no problems with that sort of thing at all. The game can easily be divided into short sessions (and its autosave feature is completely unobtrusive and stress-free), so I think it may be better suited to a small-screen portable experience.