One of the most imaginative puzzle games of recent years gives you control over reality itself, thanks to a simple polaroid photo.
New ideas are a rare commodity in any medium but with video games their scarcity is not helped by the increasingly slow improvements in technology, which in previous generations were always the primary catalyst for innovation. Even when there does seem to be a new breakthrough, such as with the superfast SSDs of current gen consoles, they don’t end up getting used for anything significant. To what degree Viewfinder relies on the specific abilities of the PlayStation 5 is not clear but its gameplay is certainly unique… but that’s not always enough to ensure it’s enjoyable.
Like any good puzzle game, Viewfinder sounds weirdly complicated and unappealing when you explain it, even though in practice it all seems relatively straightforward. Sensibly, there’s a free demo for you to try and learn the basics yourself, although one of the best features of the game is how it’s constantly adding new ideas and concepts right up until the end.
In theory, Viewfinder should be an instant classic and yet in practice it seems to do everything in its power to make itself seem as irritating and undercooked as possible. It is still an entertaining game but with more engaging storytelling and presentation it could have been something truly special.
Viewfinder’s central idea is not dissimilar to the perspective shifting Riddler puzzles from the Batman: Arkham games (and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice). In fact, those exact same puzzles do exist separately in the game, as if in homage. And since no idea is truly original, the puzzles are also reminiscent of older games like Crush and FEZ, which played with the idea of switching dimensions from 3D to 2D and back again.
The main concept revolves around taking a polaroid photo, often of somewhere in the current stage, and superimposing it onto the world around you. We’re not going to spoil the explanation for why this is possible, but it’s revealed early on and we’re not sure it ever really makes sense – but that’s fine.
Things start off simply enough in Viewfinder, as you use a photo to create a new area in an empty part of a level, usually to access an object that was previously only pictured in the photo (such as batteries, the acquisition of which are one of the most common goals). The photo’s 3D extrusion cuts into the existing world, which you quickly learn to use in order to access otherwise fenced-off areas and buildings.
Other tricks are gradually introduced, which see you rotating the photo around in order to use one of its surfaces as a ramp or platform, a concept that only makes sense if you look at the shapes in the photo out of context. Photocopiers and other conceits allow you to reuse the same photo multiple times, while eventually you get the use of static and portable cameras to create your own photos of anything you like.
On paper it all seems excitingly unique but in practice the whole thing feels strangely restrictive, despite the illusion of playing with reality. There’s rarely any more than one solution to any particular situation and the game can be very fussy about how the photo surfaces interface with the existing reality, often creating difficult to navigate holes and sloped surfaces.
Once you have the portable camera it becomes possible to create solutions that weren’t anticipated by the developer, but it only really feels like that’s necessary in the harder, optional, challenge stages. And besides, the camera isn’t in every level anyway, as it and other features disappear for long periods of time, for no apparent reason. Even so, the challenge levels feel like the only part of the game where the stabilisers have been taken off, reducing the main story stages to little more than overlong tutorials.
None of this stops the puzzles seeming any less clever than they are, but while the game is clearly aiming to be relaxing and thoughtful you play most of it in state of mild irritation, especially when having to deal with the eye rolling-ly pretentious storytelling. The reality you start in has been created by a group of unseen artists and engineers, whose vague musings you can listen to via audio logs and Post-It Notes dotted around each level. And if you don’t give up listening to them almost instantly you’ve got far more patience than us.
Viewfinder is a game that lives on the edge of greatness, as if its various aspects haven been misassembled into the least interesting configuration possible. For example, some of the photos have very different art styles, from cartoonish to impressionistic, but these only show up a few times and the rest of the game is rather drab looking, with not enough visual distinction between the different areas.
Although you keep hoping Viewfinder will straighten itself out, it ends up being disappointingly short and it’s all over much earlier than you expect. What exists is a clever and enjoyable experience but there’s clearly a much better game it could’ve been, that’s never fully realised. If only the developers could’ve taken a photo of it and transposed it onto the more banal elements of the actual game, it might have realised its true potential.
Viewfinder video game review summary
In Short: A highly imaginative puzzle game whose clever concepts are frequently used in the least appealing way possible – although they’re imaginative enough that the game remains engaging despite itself.
Pros: The central concept is great and works, more or less, perfectly. A constant stream of new ideas and increasing freedom to experiment. Challenge levels are enjoyably difficult.
Cons: Apart from the challenge stages the whole game feels like one long tutorial, with ideas coming and going for no obvious reason. Bland artwork (except for the rare occasions when it’s not) and pretentious, unengaging storytelling.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed) and PC
Developer: Sad Owl Studios
Release Date: 18th July 2023
Age Rating: 12
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