Coming from Summer Game Fest last month, I was fortunate enough to try out a lot of the upcoming games that are going to be released in the next few months. Out of the many titles I’ve tried during the course of the event, there was one indie title that really left a mark on me and that was Viewfinder from Sad Owl Studios and Thunderful Games.
It was the intriguing and innovative concept that got me, and while it’s something like what we’ve seen from Maquette and Superliminal, the execution side of it is rather brilliant. Over the 8 or so hours I poured into this game since the weekend, I was introduced to many mechanics that often impressed me and made me nod in amazement, something that persisted throughout the whole game.
Fun fact, a portion of the development team that worked on the game is based in the Philippines, and as someone who is born and raised here, it does fill me with a sense of pride to say that the game is utterly fantastic from start to finish.
So, what is Viewfinder? The game is basically a series of worlds and puzzles that will require players to use photographs to reach a teleporter at the end of the level. How, you might ask? Players can “reshape” reality with photographs, and while it might be quite complicated to actually explain, please allow me to use a file from the PS Blog to show just how these photographs can reshape reality.
You see, Viewfinder lets players use the many Polaroid photographs in the game and allows them to actually enter the world of the photograph, turning it into a 3D space that can be interacted with to solve puzzles. These photographs can be rotated, placed above or below you, and depending on how and where it is placed, items inside the photograph will react differently to their new “reality.”
Need to go up a level? If there’s a photograph with a stair, you can use it to head up to where you need to go. Can’t cross a gap? There’s a photograph with a long wall that can be rotated to serve as a walkway. The possibilities are awesome and it is very intuitive, and you’re only limited by your imagination. The art style of the photo will also be retained, so you can expect to be heading into some creatively styled worlds in black and white, pixel art, cel-shaded, and so much more.
One of the more common puzzles you’ll encounter in Viewfinder is having to power up the teleporter using batteries littered around the area. Some batteries will be just across a platform, but some will be inside photographs. By using the photograph, you can now access the world inside and grab the battery to power up the teleporter. Solving these puzzles really make you feel good about yourself, and the game has done a great job of making players feel rewarded.
Over the course of 5 hub worlds in Viewfinder, players will be introduced to variations of this reality-altering mechanic. In one world, you’ll need to align broken parts of a photo to make it real. In another world, you’ll gain access to a Polaroid camera, allowing you to take pictures and use them to solve the puzzles ahead. One quirky mechanic was the use of surfaces that do not appear in photos that you take, requiring more thought on how to approach the level.
This mechanic is the heart and soul of Viewfinder, and its implementation is so seamless that there’s almost no noticeable shift when placing the photo, making it a transition-less affair that feels very good and smooth to play.
At some point in Viewfinder, players will encounter a combination of these mechanics, which will now feed into how creative they can get with solving the problem. Got only 1 battery but have a camera? Take a photo and now you have 2 batteries! This is where the game really shines, and the satisfaction of figuring out a solution, whether the devs intended it to be that way or not, is exhilarating.
That said, using these photos will also “destroy” whatever was behind it, so players will have to approach puzzles with caution. You may mistakenly destroy the portal that was meant to be your exit, and instead of giving players the game over screen to try again, the developers have implemented the rewind mechanic to solve the frustration factor. At any point while playing Viewfinder, you can rewind to your last significant step to redo anything you’ve done up to that point!
Viewfinder is a game of trial and error, so the rewind mechanic is a way to let players try out the many ways of solving a level without having to repeat the whole level again. It’s a great addition, and while it lessens the stakes a bit, the game isn’t really meant to be a high-stakes affair. The puzzles, in general, aren’t tough, and most players will be able to finish the game by simply thinking out of the box, so to speak. At times, the solution is so simple that players could be hitting themselves, saying “why didn’t I think of that?”
In fact, Viewfinder is very chill and relaxing, despite some of the later puzzles requiring a bit of thought. The art style is very simple but lends itself well to what the game wants to be, and the relaxing music helps a lot with keeping the atmosphere steady. There’s a narrative in the game that can be quite tough to follow if you don’t take the time to read the many notes scattered around the levels.
As mentioned earlier, I’m Filipino, and it was such a surprise to see how much Filipino influence is here in Viewfinder. There are packs of Dried Mangos across levels, those huge wooden spoons and forks that my grandparents used to have, and even one of the main characters, Hiraya, speaking a few Tagalog words here and there. I love that the developers were unapologetic with including these and that they didn’t feel out of place in the world that the game inhabits.
With how Viewfinder is set up, it really lends itself to a lot of replayability well after you’ve finished the game. Despite already knowing the solution, there are so many ways to go about it that, oftentimes, there’s almost always a better and faster way to do it. There are also optional challenges that will really test your puzzle-solving skills, so challenge-seekers could also squeeze out more playing time with it.
There’s already a dedicated group of Viewfinder speedrunners that have been going crazy with the demo (it’s available for everyone to try out!) which will show just how much creativity lends itself to finishing the game. It’s great replay value and, you’ll also find yourself looking for some collectibles along the way.
What we liked:
- Multiple “a-ha!” moments across the game feels very satisfying
- Mechanic of photos altering reality is very seamless
- Puzzles are not extremely hard or frustrating but will require some level of thought
- Various Filipino references scattered throughout the game
- You get to pet a cat
What we didn’t like:
- I wished the game was a wee bit longer
- Some photo placements may require trial and error to get the depth right
- Narrative may be a bit tough to follow if you don’t take the time to read the notes
Verdict: Buy it!
Overall, Viewfinder is a simple yet fantastic concept that’s brought to life with brilliant execution. It doesn’t get too fancy with effects or photorealistic visuals, but the entertainment and satisfaction factor of the game is up there with the best of them.
Solving puzzles is extremely satisfying, prompting back pats for a job well done. The puzzles aren’t frustratingly tough but will require players to think and approach them from a new perspective. In fact, there are multiple ways to go about things, bringing forth creative ways to solve one problem.
*Viewfinder was reviewed on a PS5 with a review code provided by the publisher.