Thinking outside the frames
I'm a big puzzle fan, especially those that aren't afraid to get a little weird. Titles such as The Witness and Baba is You have led to some of the best moments I have had playing a game in the last decade. These are games that aren't afraid to break from convention and force you to think way outside the lines. From the first time I got my hands on the Viewfinder demo, I knew it would fit right in with those puzzlers. Sad Owl Studios' debut effort leaves a great first impression and manages to continue to excite across its brief runtime.
The gimmick at the core of Viewfinder is using photographs or images to reconstruct the world around you. Basically, by placing an image over the environment, you will bring in the constructs from said image to the real world. To use an example that frequently pops up, you can use a photograph of a walkway to construct a bridge over a gap you may not have a way to otherwise cross. The flipside to this is that elements of the photograph you are placing down may inadvertently affect the area that's being superimposed over. If you place an image on top of a piece of equipment, that item is going to be destroyed. However, you can learn to use this to your advantage by doing things such as slicing through a wall that may have been preventing you from completing a level.
The game is broken down into five different hubs, with each one bringing in a different mechanic. Within these hubs are multiple sets of levels, with optional puzzles as well. The goal of each level is to reach a teleporter that will bring you further into the game's world. Most of these teleporters are self-powered, and you only need to reach them in order to complete the level. However, there are other portals that need to be powered up before being accessed. Some of them need batteries, while others may use pressure panels or sound to open. The key is often figuring out how to bring these power sources to where they need to go with the images you have on hand.
As you progress through the game, Viewfinder continues to expand upon its gimmick in creative ways. You start with using images already taken, then progress to having an instant camera of your own to use. Eventually this leads to photocopiers and self-timers being worked into solutions. There are other wrinkles that come into play as well, but to spoil them would be taking away a piece of what makes the title so intriguing. It's constantly throwing new challenges and modifiers at you, and it forces you to combine all your knowledge to craft solutions. I never got bored with the mechanics, and often found myself awed by what I was able to do with the tools provided. Solutions I conjured up didn't always feel like the right way to reach the goal, but this is not a game that punishes you for being creative.
There's not much to the controls, but they can come off as clumsy at times. I played through it on the Steam Deck and had some issues with getting the images I was trying to superimpose in the right location. Sometimes this would be due to issues with depth perception, other times it would be due to not adjusting it to the right angle. The title has an easy-to-use rewind mechanic, so you can quickly revert any changes you make, but it still got annoying trying to place a picture exactly where I needed it to be. I also found jumping to be a little more awkward than it should be. There's only one level that has a timer, so again, if you mess up a jump, it's not the end of the world.
As captivated as I was by the title's mechanics, the overarching story of Viewfinder doesn't reach the same level. Set at some point in the future, you are a researcher attempting to find a way to reverse rampant climate change. The best hope for a solution may possibly be found in a simulation created by a group of scientists. This simulation was created in order to experiment outside the confines of the real world. All the puzzles you are working to solve were crafted by these geniuses in order to further their intrepid research. However, with none of the scientists around, your only guidance through this world is a fellow researcher Jessie, and AI feline construct Cait.
The issue with the plot is that it ultimately affects the game very little. It's barely brought up outside of a cutscene and some dialogue exchanges, and it has no bearing on what you are doing. The backstory on the scientists could have led to some interesting moments, but their development is shunted off to audio logs, diary entries and sticky notes. And the backing information you do get from those sources comes off as very dry and boring. I read over and listened to whatever I found, but none of it altered my experience in a good way. There's little personality to the whole story, and it feels sufficiently underdeveloped.
Viewfinder may not immediately impress with its style, but it houses some interesting visuals. For the most part, the simulation you are exploring has very clean and lab-like look. There's some foliage here and there, but it's mostly lots of white buildings and rooms. The different hubs you reach are reflective of the different scientists who worked there. They offer a break from the clinical levels, but again, nothing too exciting. It's when the title introduces different kinds of images to superimpose that you experience some wild things. You're not just limited to dropping photos, as surfaces from stencil drawings, playing cards, barcodes and virtual devices can be placed down and explored. Some of these are used to progress through the levels, while others are just merely fun diversions. Their flashiness and creativity showcase a visual flair that you wish the game would have embraced more often.
It may not be a triumph in all regards, but Viewfinder ultimately succeeds where it counts most. The core mechanic of using still images to create 3D structures creates captivating and complex puzzles that are a blast to solve. Sad Owl Studios constantly introduces new ingredients that provide consistent enjoyment across the title's six-hour length. It could have used more instances of fun visual tricks, and the plot should have been weaved into the game better, but ultimately, making sure the puzzles were enjoyable was the clear top priority. If you are in the market for something that will twist your brain into a pretzel, this will more than satisfy that urge.