There have been more than a couple of notable attempts to try to create video games based around a career of firefighting — Burning Rangers and The Ignition Factor immediately spring to mind — which makes sense, given that there’s an inherently satisfactory feeling to defeating one of man’s most primal foes via a constant spray of liquid ammunition. But even the best of these games never get to any category beyond “cult classic.” But now along comes Firegirl: Hack ‘n Splash Rescue from Dejima and Thunderful Publishing, which showed a lot of promise leading up to its release. So will this particular blaze be a thing of beauty or just another disaster?
Firegirl is the story of our no-real-name-given heroine Firegirl, who steps into the shoes of her deceased father by joining the city’s fire department, armed with a water cannon and axe, and ready to save lives. Unfortunately, this rookie picked a bad time to begin, not just because the mayor has slashed the department’s budget, but also because a constant assault of fire monsters are now threatening to burn the city to embers…the very same types of monsters the chief and Firegirl’s father saw ten years ago. So in between saving citizens from various infernos, Firegirl also has to help figure out exactly how to stop these monsters once and for all, and that’s where the plot takes a turn for the difficult.
Mind you, it doesn’t take a turn for the difficult because the story becomes hard to comprehend or anything. No, instead the difficulty comes in trying to even progress the story, period. The game eventually introduces thirteen Fire Tomes for Firegirl to find, but to get them, you’ll need to find where they’re hidden in random levels, tucked away deeper and deeper as you go. Now, in any typical action game, roguelike or whatnot, this would be the part where the game encourages you to explore further in order to find various secrets. The problem, though, is that Firegirl isn’t exactly a game built to be centered around exploration.
To step back for a moment and example the basic gameplay, Firegirl is a 2D action-platformer where you use your hose to either extinguish the various fire monsters or rocket yourself into the air and across large distances via the water jet, as well as use an axe to clear out debris and but down doors. The goal in each level is to find and rescue a set number of survivors within a short time limit and then make your way to an exit before dying, with your reward being a huge chunk of cash via the city and your fans. But fail, and it’s…well, just not as much money, with none coming from fans and hospital fees now deducted.
The problem is that the story and gameplay are at odds with one another. You only have three minutes to complete a level at first (you can purchase upgrades for the time limit later), and you have to spend most of that time locating people to rescue and then bolting towards the exit. Not helping is our old friend, Mr. RNG, who is at his worst here with these procedurally-generated levels. Sometimes the levels space out the victims, sometimes they’re easy to find, but the exit as a gigantic trek away, and sometimes it spawns an exit at the very beginning but forgets that each room is sealed off by a wall of fire after leaving it. And Mr. RNG has apparently decided to screw around with the architecture of each level in the process, because trying to find out where to go based on building layouts is impossible, sometimes going up three floors and backwards only to find the bottom entrance of an alley somehow.
So sorry if there isn’t much time to try and find the Fire Tomes, but one would assume that a game called Firegirl: Hack ‘n Splash Rescue would want the main focus to be on actually rescuing people, not risking our lives more than needed to find a set of Macguffins. The game does encourage you to gain extra time that could help by extinguishing fire monsters, but the amount of time gained from such an act only barely covers the time used to get rid of them to begin with. As such, time is ironically better spent just jumping over and avoiding fires as much as possible until you find who you need.
The saddest part of this is that the core gameplay is still fun, at least in concept. Hacking down doors and putting out fires have satisfying impacts, as do jetting across the air. The fire monsters are a nicely designed lot and have a decent amount of variety. The controls are fine, discovering upgrades is neat, the water pressure management works well…it’s just that it all has problems coming together due to the substandard level design and progression. And the steep difficulty curve created by the maze-like levels, time limit and RNG means that you’ll be grinding for a while until you have a the cash needed for the upgrades that can truly help you out (once you rescue the specific NPCs and hire them, mind you). It’s telling that some levels beyond the first like a train rescue and a forest fire are actually much easier since they mainly require you to just head left to right in order to find survivors and the exit.
There are other issues as well, such as enemy knockback that reaches “LJN NES game” levels of bad (especially when getting knocked backwards by a stairwell or into a pit), or bugs that prevented this player from picking up certain power-ups or unlocking certain badges that provide buffs despite meeting the criteria. But Firegirl’s greatest sin is that it just becomes too repetitive. Even once you’ve gathered enough upgrades to make things easier, by this point you’ll have seen most of the major levels and enemies over and over again. And while it’s still possible again for the core gameplay to be fun, it never gets to point where a satisfying enough gameplay loop is created.
To end things on one major positive, though, there is the fact that Firegirl is a stunning game to look at. The stylish 2D sprites with attractive, cartoonish design blended in with the eye-pleasing and detailed 3D environments and wicked lighting and reflection effects, among other things, certain makes for one visual feast, especially when some of the background monsters get a little…surreal. The soundtrack is also nice, fast and pulse-pounding, perfectly suited for a game such as this. So what we have here is a game with an attractive package, just one whose contents could use more organization.
Firegirl: Hack ‘n Splash Rescue isn’t necessarily a hot mess or a dumpster fire, but it is a rather unstable experiment made of promising elements that went up in smoke. The basic platforming and firefighting action is enjoyable enough, but the rest of the possible enjoyment is buried under a mound of RNG, bad procedurally-generated levels and a lack of good progression. Unless you’re up for a big challenge, this is one title likely to leave you cold instead.