viewfinder review

Viewfinder Review: Making Sense of The Surreal

7.0 TOTAL SCORE

Viewfinder Review

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viewfinder

The Demo Version of Viewfinder was really promising, and after the final release I can definitely say it wasn't as promised. The game is short, has a weak narrative, and can be pretty hit-and-miss when it comes to puzzle design. However, It has to be said; Viewfinder has its moments, and you can find more on that in this guide.


Score 7
PROS
  • Colorful, cozy visuals with a wide variety of art styles presented
  • An incredible core puzzle mechanic
  • Some very satisfying, mind-bending puzzles
  • Replayability through achievements, and collectibles
CONS
  • Weak narrative and vocal performances make engaging with the story a chore
  • Peaks and valleys when it comes to puzzle quality
  • A very short experience

Indie games, for the most part, are a branch of gaming that rarely penetrates the mainstream zeitgeist. No matter how promising a new indie seems to be, they usually only achieve a cult following.

Probably because AAA studios are more than happy to spend millions on ridiculous ad campaigns, which the plucky little indie studios just can’t do.

However, there are a handful of games that inexplicably cut through the thick social media overgrowth and become viral sensations, usually offering a unique hook that, even when competing against blockbuster AAA’s, simply cannot be ignored. Well, the latest indie to catch the eye of the masses was Viewfinder.

Thanks to a cleverly constructed 15-minute demo showcasing Viewfinders’ unique photo and camera-based puzzle mechanics, gamers flocked to the title and hoped that the full game could replicate the wonderment of the meticulously packaged demo content.

While some people out there were happy enough to preemptively label this puzzle game as ‘The Next Portal,’ I remained skeptical. I had a hunch that this game had blown its load in the demo, and the full release would really struggle to maintain that level of intrigue and clever puzzle design throughout. Not to mention, without a clever narrative, I felt the game might fall flat anyway.

Well, I have bad news, folks. I was pretty much right on all counts. The game is short, has a weak narrative, and can be pretty hit-and-miss when it comes to puzzle design. However, It has to be said; Viewfinder has its moments.

To help you decide if those moments are worth you purchasing this game, here is Indie Game Culture’s Viewfinder Review, conducted on PS5.

Artistic Inception

We begin with the visuals of Viewfinder, which can essentially be viewed from two different perspectives. Looking at the game as a whole, taking into account the general assets, the set-dressing, the hub worlds, and the overall surrealist, pastel-colored art direction, it’s a little underwhelming.

I feel like the visuals hop on the bandwagon of what was present in Superliminal in a lot of ways, but fail to improve on these visuals even with new hardware to work with, and four years to do it in.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a harsh criticism, as the overall presentation of Viewfinder is pleasant enough, and never really drops the ball in terms of animation, assets, or textures. However, it never really sets the world alight, either.

Viewfinder Review: the visuals
It’s nice, but it can still feel rubbery and clearly Unity-build at times

This leads me to the other perspective. This rather basic approach holistically may have been necessary to implement the photo-based mechanics that allow you to hop into alternate dimensions that have surreal and distinct new art styles.

You might find yourself in a cartoon desert, a child’s crayon drawing, or standing inside Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and to the game’s credit, it always delivers in terms of ‘wow factor’ when you place and hop into each of these worlds encased in these snapshots.

That being said, these moments are pretty fleeting, as you will primarily navigate relatively cookie-cutter environments that fail to enhance the story, use the environment to help us learn about the scientists that inhabited the space before our arrival, and while the viewfinder concept serves as a respite from this, it isn’t frequent enough for me to say that it truly makes up for the simplistic visuals on offer.

Take Selfies, Save The World

We then move on to the story, which I firmly believed would be the aspect of this game that would have the pendulum swing from a great game to simply an interesting but average title.

I had hoped that the game would weave a compelling story through each level and really make us care for the characters we regularly hear through Phonographs. However, the game never really does enough to entice the player away from the puzzles on show to explore the world, get to know these characters, and listen to their dialogues.

viewfinder world
Is this machine the answer? Who knows?

The story essentially sees you play a scientist on an expedition through a simulation to try and bring back any form of life to your dystopian world so you can rebuild the planet. Think of the central plot of Wall-E, and you won’t be too far off.

This then sees you explore these simulated living spaces left behind by scientists of old in the hope of finding a machine rumored to be the grand solution to the problems in the real world.

It’s a reasonably interesting premise, but the game never does anything interesting with it. Much like the gameplay mechanics and setting, the narrative feels abstract.

There are sticky notes plastered all over levels with nonsensical vague messages, the journal entries offer little substance either, and because you never meet anyone in person or engage with anything in this world outside of the puzzles, you never feel like there are any stakes and also will find it a task to emotionally attach yourself to Jessie, any of the scientists, or your player character.

viewfinder Scottish cat
I would die for this wee Scottish cat

The only saving grace is the more silly aspects of this game’s world which offer a little comedic respite from the dull and uneventful core story. Cait the Cat is a wonderful character with fun interjections, delivers the only interesting exposition within the game, and thanks to this little feline companion, the ending of the game manages to have a bit of an emotional kick to it.

Not to mention Dustin the Dustbin, a Roomba that regularly pops into levels to roam around, bang into things, and inevitably get tossed off the edge of the world into the void below.

In short, aside from little pockets of fun, Viewfinder’s story is as weak as a milky cup of tea, and as a proud Irishman, I simply cannot get behind that.

Peaks and Valleys

Having been thoroughly underwhelmed by the narrative and visuals on offer, a lot rode on the gameplay on offer here to ensure this puzzle adventure even came close to delivering on the hype generated by Viewfinder’s Demo, and thankfully, there is a lot of positives present when it comes to Viewfinder’s gameplay.

For those unaware, Viewfinder is a game that makes use of POV and camera-based mechanics, allowing players to use Polaroids and place these images into the world around them seamlessly. This starts slow by giving players the ability to build platforms, use recursive images to form paths, and photocopy images to create multiple batteries to power teleporters.

However, from humble beginnings, Viewfinder manages to take this concept and branch off in many different directions. This means that the puzzles on show are varied and creative, but while the variety is great, the quality of the puzzles isn’t always consistent.

viewfinder poster
Moments, where you can hop into pictures and paintings, make everything feel worthwhile

The undisputed highlights of the game’s puzzles are usually down to style over substance, but in the best way possible. In sections where you wander through multiple distinct environments by patching together drawings, posters, and snapshots, everything feels surreal and sublime.

The sections that implement optical illusions are also a trip, and towards the end, when players have to solve puzzles with the clock ticking is intense and a joy to behold. The problem is, they just aren’t frequent enough.

These standout moments are over all too quicky, and this leads to the more forgettable puzzles involving batteries, selfies for teleportation, and using images to slice objects and structures. Which in a game as short as this one really hurts the overall pacing tremendously.

viewfinder puzzles
I loved this timed format, I just wish there was more than one section like this.

So when all was said and done, it left me with an unsatiated feeling, as if I had eaten a whole bag of chips instead of a full meal. Sure, they were tasty, but I want more!

Combine this with the fact that Viewfinder’s puzzles never truly challenge the player, and you have an experience that has all the composite parts present to make it a truly genre-defining puzzle title, but instead fails to capitalize on the best aspects of what it has to offer.

Surprisingly Emergent

I will close off this review on a positive note by saying that the game is surprisingly emergent and open when it comes to problem-solving. You would think that in a game that uses these outlandish and technically complex mechanics, the puzzles would be pretty rigid.

However, in most cases, there are multiple ways to solve each puzzle presented, which means that one player’s experience may vary when compared to another. It rewards creative puzzle solving, and usually, if you approach a puzzle in a more alternative way, you’ll get an achievement/trophy for your efforts.

viewfinder tomodatchi
I couldn’t keep mine alive as a kid. This was my redemption.

This brings me neatly to the game’s replay value. Through the emergent gameplay and the hidden achievements that serve as miniature puzzles in and of themselves, there is a little more that you can squeeze out of this game when you roll credits.

Plus, you have little collectibles dotted around the levels to find as well, which are a little more tedious by comparison, but something to do nonetheless.

Whether it’s nurturing a flower in a Tamagotchi mini-game or creating an army of Dustins. There will be something to keep you busy for an hour or two after completion.

Closest Alternatives

Before we give our final verdict, here are some games that you’ll probably get a kick out of if you were enamored with Viewfinder’s puzzle design and camera mechanics:

  • Superliminal
  • Toem
  • Pokemon Snap
  • The Witness
  • Portal
  • Supraland

Question: Can You Play Viewfinder For Free?

Answer: You can’t play the whole game for free, but you can play some of the coolest moments in the entire game via the Viewfinder demo. Although, I would say that if you witness this before playing the full game, you might come away from the game feeling a little short-changed, as the demo flatters to deceive a little.

Question: Is Viewfinder A PS5 Exclusive?

Answer: Viewfinder can be played via PC. However, Viewfinder is indeed a PS4/5 console exclusive.

Question: What is The Cat In Viewfinder Called?

Answer: The Cat is called Cait and is an AI companion created by Mirren, another character in the game.

The Verdict – 7/10

Overall, Viewfinder is a game with an incredible concept, some intriguing gimmicks throughout, and some really clever ideas when it comes to puzzle design.

However, despite this impressive foundation to build upon, the game fails to truly cash in on this successful format, offering a disappointingly small selection of puzzles, and a number of concepts that feel like filler before you get to the next awe-worthy mechanic.

The game, from a graphical standpoint, mirrors that of a typical walking simulator, albeit a little more abstract and colorful, but thanks to the filters, and the ability to hop into photos with distinct art styles, the game provides enough variety to make up for the more basic core assets.

As for the story, while the ending does have a slight emotional gut-punch to offer, the story never really grabs the player, with puzzles always acting as the driving force of the title, while dialogue and story beats serve as superfluous white noise at the best of times.

The recurring silly gags Dustin the Dustbin, or Cait the Cat’s interjections do help cover the cracks, but if you expected a fun story here, you’ll be underwhelmed by what’s presented.

It leaves me ultimately sitting on the fence as to whether I would truly recommend this one. The peaks are very high, and the valleys very low.

It’s quite expensive at the time of writing, and it’s devastatingly short. However, if pushed, I would say for the top-tier puzzles produced here alone, I would say Viewfinder is well worth a try for curious puzzle fanatics.

Pros

  • Colorful, cozy visuals with a wide variety of art styles presented
  • An incredible core puzzle mechanic
  • Some very satisfying, mind-bending puzzles
  • Replayability through achievements, and collectibles

Cons

  • Weak narrative and vocal performances make engaging with the story a chore
  • Peaks and valleys when it comes to puzzle quality
  • A very short experience
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