Viewfinder - Puzzles Through A New Lens
Let’s begin with some disclosure – I’ve never been smart enough for most puzzle games. For decades I’ve looked at the puzzles in games like The Talos Principle, Braid, The Witness, or Echochrome and have quickly gotten a nervous tick with many learning curves rapidly spiking, leaving me completely broken, and incapable of progressing. Having seen promotional footage of Viewfinder, I was certain that this new title was going to elicit similar responses to other genre entries, and yet, Viewfinder succeeds in ways that other puzzle games have not – it’s accessible to less-confident players, whilst still providing the same, serious, brain-warping challenge to those that are more versed in the nature of the game or simply progress far enough.
In our rapidly evolving environment, the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly apparent, as society encroaches on an endgame period, where a solution is desperately needed to correct the course. In desperation, the player character is jumping into VR constructs that are designed to help you find a way to pave the road for humanity out of this dire situation. While the gravity of the situation is immense, and one that we’re becoming increasingly familiar with, the game can lay it on thick at times, and overcomplicate the citation, diminishing the impact of the message. From audio logs that appear to be out of sequential order and with everything else you have to contend with, are hard to follow, to some chirpy voices in the ear, there are a lot of individuals nagging at the player, and dragging away from the core goal.
Those VR constructs, however, are something, and when you’re not dialled into various meandering audio logs or reading often mundane notes, you’re attempting to crack the code on some of the most visually immersive puzzles yet available in gaming. Players are using photography, either those that they take themselves, or strategically placed polaroids to pierce the environment, flip it, or make new platforming opportunities that open up access to portions of the environment, or otherwise unreachable objects. The solutions to these puzzles are incredibly inventive, but the building up of the players’ skillset is well-paced allowing numerous opportunities for players to succeed. Early puzzles will see players using photos of walls or walkways to create/removes paths that were/weren’t there before, but as the game developers, a process that takes about 3-4 hours to reach its conclusion, the game drip feeds a range of other mechanics, and also combinations of problems into the mix to complicate the process further. Soon, players are managing batteries to power circuits, taking their own photographs, and even manipulating mounted cameras with timers to take selfies (and yes, it’s a puzzle-solving mechanic) to navigate their way – and it all works exceedingly well.
Viewfinder must be a programming and engineering marvel, but it’s also an extremely striking title on the aesthetic front. The game’s default look is sharp and evokes some hints of The Witness, but on a few limited occasions, the game dabbles in a range of vastly differing visual styles, some that are comparable to OG DOOM or Quake, to hand-drawn childlike drawings, and other hyper-stylised looks. Optional levels give you further opportunities to go deeper down the well of creativity at Sad Owl Studios, beyond just the creative puzzles, but down to the visuals implemented as well. The soundtrack is nothing to write home about, it’s quite subdued and doesn’t intrude, but it’s also not particularly memorable either.
Viewfinder, when it has its full focus on its subject, thrives in ways that few puzzle games have ever done, but when it wanders too deeply into exploring an unnecessarily complicated narrative, with relatively uninteresting characters, the momentum the game has been building is squandered. When Sad Owl Studios, and the player, are focussed solely on the puzzles however, Viewfinder is a success like few others in its genre. It’s a challenge that all of us should be taking on.
Viewfinder was reviewed on PS5 with a code kindly provided by Thunderful Games