Ah the old indie puzzler. These were the things that I spent far too much time on when trying to fill the 1 review a week goal I’d set myself long ago. I still enjoy them from time to time, but it’s rare that one comes out with something truly novel or unique these days. Viewfinder though presented itself with a bold proposition: being able to take pictures of your environment and then manipulate them back into the world. Whilst messing with perspective isn’t novel in itself the idea of being able to use anything you see in the environment that way was, so that was more than enough to get me to try it. Whilst the puzzle mechanics are competent I was left feeling wanting for the overall experience, the puzzles becoming repetitive and the narrative unfortunately not adding a whole lot to the experience.

The world is in peril, the changes to the climate have devastated the world’s flora leaving humanity without a viable source of oxygen. You and your partner have stumbled across an old simulation, one created by a team of scientists who tasked themselves with solving this problem. Why this simulation was shut down is a mystery, as all signs seem to point to them creating something that would be able to render the climate habitable once again. So you put yourself to task exploring the vast, beautiful world they created in the hopes that you can bring something back to save Earth.

Viewfinder’s style feels like it exists in the same universe that bore The Stanley Parable and Superliminal, being slightly stylized whilst retaining more realistic elements for choice pieces. I used to call this the standard “Unity” style, although I feel like that’s evolved a lot more in recent years. To be sure Viewfinder still tends towards the lower poly/low-texture that tends to dominate the indie scene these days, although it’s not taken to anywhere near the extreme that I see in most games. The visual style is also likely driven by the game mechanics as well, as complex geometry doesn’t play well when you’re able to mess with it and produce emergent gameplay.

Fundamentally Viewfinder is a relatively straightforward indie puzzler, putting you in a room with a handful of tools that you’ll need to use to progress to the next one. It’s claim to fame though is the various mechanics that allow you to capture part of the environment and then paste it somewhere else. This leads to all sorts of non-linear and emergent gameplay mechanics, some which can really send you up the garden path if you get the wrong idea early on. There’s also a handful of typical puzzle elements layered on top of this, forcing you to rethink how to apply your well worn solutions with this new mechanic in the mix. Overall as just a straight puzzler it’s quite competent, it’s just that the main claim to fame wears thin after a while.

Probably the best way I can talk to this is how the challenge is increased in one of the sets of puzzles: it’s the tried and true “add a timer” to it. Now I’m not against this as a mechanic per se but it is one of the less enjoyable ones to add into a game in order to increase the challenge. Games with mechanics that are rife for emergent gameplay are probably the worst candidates to add this into as you can easily frustrate player who have figured out the solution but not in the very specific way you want them to do it in order to meet the time challenge. Can it be done well? Absolutely. Does Viewfinder do it well? Partially.

The devs have done a good job in limiting the emergent aspects of the game so there’s not a lot of edge cases to exploit, but they are definitely still there. A side effect of this, something which the trailers conveniently hide, is that the vast majority of the puzzles are nowhere near as free form as you’d expect. Most of them have fixed cameras, elements that can’t be manipulated and a whole host of limitations that really narrow the scope of the core mechanic. Why this is done is understandable but I was hoping it was going to be a little more free than it was.

For what it’s worth though the majority of the puzzles are well done, most of them telegraphing their solution in a subtle way that you can figure out given enough time. There are some which I think I wasn’t meant to get as quickly as I did, but that could just be because their puzzle language made more sense to me than it usually does.

The biggest letdown here is the narrative which doesn’t do enough to draw you in and fill the gaps in between puzzles. Whilst I certainly appreciate its construction and presentation (voice overs that you can listen to as your playing are the way to go, for sure) I just didn’t resonate with the characters. Part of this is probably because it’s all disembodied voices just talking about their experiences, something which can easily fall flat without the right emotional hook. Thinking about it more that’s probably what Viewfinder is missing: a compelling human element to the narrative of the scientists. Maybe it’s there and I just missed it, I don’t know, but I’ve played numerous similar games that have been able to make me feel something when using the exact same construction (The Turing Test comes to mind).

Viewfinder is a game I want to like more than I did. The novel puzzle mechanics were enough to get me in the door but as they wore thin and the story failed to pick up I was left wanting. There’s praise to be given for the game’s overall construction and mechanics, that’s for sure. The repetitive puzzles and lack of compelling narrative pull it down a few pegs, a mistake I’ve seen a lot of indie devs make before. Still as a first release from a new developer it ticks a lot of boxes and I hope they’ve seen enough success to continue build out their next title.

Rating: 7.5/10

Viewfinder is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 right now for $36.50. Game was played on the PC with 3.6 hours of total playtime and 39% of the achievements unlocked.

About the Author

David Klemke

David is an avid gamer and technology enthusiast in Australia. He got his first taste for both of those passions when his father, a radio engineer from the University of Melbourne, gave him an old DOS box to play games on.

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