When it comes to puzzle games, I tend to gravitate toward those that have imaginative settings or that play with physics in unique ways. When I first came across Viewfinder, a single-player puzzle platformer developed by Sad Owl Studios and published by Thunderful, I was instantly intrigued by its surreal, vibrant world and perspective-shifting gameplay. Reminiscent of games like Portal, Superliminal, and Gorogoa, Viewfinder offers satisfying puzzles and an interesting premise that earns it a spot alongside icons of the genre.
The bigger picture
In Viewfinder, players take on the role of a researcher who enters and explores an advanced computer simulation in order to understand the discoveries made by previous researchers in the field. As players manipulate their surroundings with the help of an instant camera and other tools, what unfolds is a poignant narrative that touches on themes of ambition, hope, and the pitfalls of innovation.
The game is divided into five main hubs, each belonging to one of the previous researchers and designed to reflect their individual style and interests. Each hub and the puzzles within them feature visually appealing spaces that encourage players to sit down and take in the sights, quite literally. The early levels have nazar amulets overlooking jewel-toned seating areas with lush foliage and vibrant paintings, while later levels feature undulating purple structures adorned with blooming lithops and succulents. A considerable amount of care has been put into the layout of each hub realm, and it shows.
While there is a cohesive narrative that ties together the experience, it is the collectible audio logs that allow you to unravel the story at your own pace. Though it is possible to ignore the recordings entirely to focus on the puzzles, the story was compelling enough to want to understand the bigger picture. Players eventually meet Cait, a charming virtual cat who accompanies you throughout the simulation and provides additional narrative context for your findings. You can also pet Cait in most levels, rewarding you with soothing purrs for your efforts.
Within the simulation, players can manipulate their surroundings using an instant camera that produces photos with world-altering properties. Any pictures you create or pick up in a level can be placed in front of you, bringing the image’s contents into the world as physical objects that can be manipulated and used to solve puzzles. Picture placement is smooth and went off without a hitch, a pleasant surprise given its capricious nature.
The puzzles themselves typically involve finding the means to power a teleporter that transports you either to the next puzzle or back to the hub world upon completion. The puzzles ramp up in complexity as new elements are added to the mix, such as filters, photocopiers, and stationary cameras that expand your image-manipulation capabilities. Viewfinder also introduces a unique rewind function early on that allows players to quickly undo mistakes, which became an invaluable tool during puzzle solving.
The puzzles were sufficiently challenging, but never seemed impossible to solve. As new elements are introduced, you will have to experiment with the tools at hand, and there are usually some sort of limitations to work around. If you sit idle within a puzzle for too long, the game will offer up a hint within the game menu. Although they are not always available, I was glad the hints were there when I needed them, as they were usually helpful without being too revealing. Each hub also features optional puzzles that reward additional camera filters upon completion. Optional puzzles tend to be more difficult, and some of them left me stumped long after credits rolled on the campaign.
The right frame of mind
While Viewfinder’s puzzles may constrain the tools at your disposal, you can always rely on having a place to sit while mulling over the details of your surroundings. Although there are ample chairs throughout the game, I was not always compelled to take the time to sit in them, at least not for long. Besides taking a second to gather your thoughts or soak in the vibe, the plethora of chairs did not seem to serve any other purpose. While most seating arrangements seemed thoughtfully placed amongst the decor, some seats had me facing walls or otherwise didn’t have much of a view. Such a prevalent feature would have been more appealing if it served a more practical purpose or at least offered more photo-worthy sights. The novelty of sitting wore off rather quickly and I found myself avoiding the feature entirely after exploring the initial hubs.
Viewfinder’s innovative, clever puzzles and the satisfaction that came with solving them left me eager to face each challenge head on. Although the optional puzzles somewhat extend your time spent in the simulation, the experience felt relatively short overall. However, I can appreciate the time and effort that must have went into the thoughtfully crafted puzzles that are present in the game. Viewfinder’s unique gameplay mechanics encourage you to think outside the box, and the aesthetically pleasing spaces, intriguing lore, and surreal image manipulation left me wanting more. Despite its brevity, Viewfinder is a solid puzzle game that represents an elegant step forward in the puzzle genre.
This review was based on a pre-release PC review code provided by the publisher. Viewfinder releases on July 18, 2023 for PC and PlayStation 5.
- Innovative, satisfying puzzles
- Beautifully designed world
- Decent voice acting
- Nice soundtrack
- Can pet the cat
- Game felt somewhat short
- Seating is abundant, yet underutilized
Larryn Bell posted a new article, Viewfinder review: Now you're thinking with photos
Looks like a nice chill game.
This seems like one of those games where you see the hook and it's just like "holy shit that's wild!" like Portal or SUPERHOT.