'The Last Campfire' is a haunting twilight stroll through the forest

The new title from Hello Games is nothing like "No Man's Sky."

Hello Games

There's something special about hiking through a forest as the sun goes down. During the day, it's the sort of thing that can re-connect you with nature, far away from the noise of cities and civilization. But as night approaches, there's an added layer of mystery -- every sight and sound has an air of intrigue and potential menace. Hello Games, developers of No Man's Sky, is aiming to capture that mood with its latest title, The Last Campfire, which arrived on Apple Arcade, consoles and PCs yesterday.

"A lot of Hello Games' titles have this kind of thing that sparks back from childhood," said developer Steve Burgess in an interview with Engadget. "Joe Danger is about wanting to be a stuntman, No Man's Sky is about what it would feel like to set foot on a planet you've never seen." And for The Last Campfire, it was all about recreating the feeling of his childhood walks.

The game places you in the role of Ember, a small creature who wakes up in a mysterious forest, and has to figure out how he can get back home. Along the way, he finds the remains of other beings like him, and by solving puzzles he helps their spirits find peace. It's a game that's ultimately about the search for meaning and hope when things seem particularly rough -- so it couldn't be more fitting for  the state of the world today.

The Last Campfire
Hello Games

Even though it was developed by a team of three -- Burgess, Chris Symonds, and James Chilcott — The Last Campfire doesn't feel like a small game. Its environments are colorful and richly detailed, and every screen is distinct in some way. The instrumental score and gentle narration also makes Ember's journey feels like something out of The Lord of the Rings. In many ways, The Last Campfire couldn't be more different than No Man's Sky -- it sets you down linear paths, and there's little room for exploration. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the game feel like an interactive storybook.

Sean Murray, the founder of Hello Games, tells us that the company also approached The Last Campfire's controls with touchscreens in mind first. "With Joe Danger, we'd come from doing a console game, and we rebuilt it pretty much completely to make it feel at home on the phone," he said. "This time around... I think we're at a point where the controls feel really intuitive and at home on a touchscreen."

The Last Campfire

While The Last Campfire looks like an adventure game, it's also filled with a variety of puzzles. The touchscreen controls (at least based on my experience with an iPhone 11 Pro) add a tactile element to the whole experience, like when you have to rotate a dial with your thumb, or swipe left or right to pull a lever. It's not fast-paced by any means, but the thoughtful touch controls make you feel like you're actually involved with the action, which adds an extra layer of suspense when trying to rescue lost souls.

“When you're doing a new IP, it's a bit of a maze,” Murray said. “You can't just go in and predict exactly how it'll turn out. The characters and things you do might have changed. But that's part of the process. We're quite comfortable with that. What we try and hold onto is an emotion we're trying to get across.” In this case, Hello Games has captured something truly haunting.