Viewfinder is a first-person puzzle game developed by Sad Owl Studios and published by Thunderful that takes players on a reality-bending, picture-taking adventure.
Your mission is to search for and recover lost technology that has the power to save the world. Joining you is your partner, Jessie, and an AI cat friend named CAIT. What makes Viewfinder so interesting isn’t its story, though. Sad Owl’s soft romp through a virtual world challenges players to, sometimes literally, think outside the box with perspective-based puzzles. This often involves using a camera that can capture images of the environment and then reproduce them.
The results of such a novel mechanic can be, frankly, pretty mind-blowing, with footage of some puzzles having attracted viral attention. However, it’s worth asking: Are these perspective-shifting tools nothing more than a cheap gimmick? I’m thrilled to report the answer is a confident “no.”
Viewfinder is split between five worlds that each focus on different characters, themes, and puzzle types. Sub-sections start out simple enough as Sad Owl asks players to accomplish tasks that see them rotating photographs and collecting batteries to progress. What follows is a campaign with a steady progression of ideas that are naturally introduced in a way that pushes the boundaries of your puzzle-solving abilities and, more importantly, your creativity. This is emphasized by a rewind mechanic that keeps players feeling curious, not cautious.
Most levels seem to be made with one or two solutions in mind, but at least for the majority of the experience, there are few restrictions on how you use your tools to solve puzzles. Even later levels, which introduce materials that can’t be copied, have some degree of freedom when it comes to player choice. Every solution feels rewarding in spite of this design philosophy, making for a trim selection of tests that don’t mind if crafty players mold their own solution. In fact, I’m sure if you watch others take on these puzzles, you’ll see them conjure solutions you had never imagined.
If you couldn’t tell, Viewfinder is pretty heavily influenced by Portal, but it never feels like a clone. Besides its hallmark mechanic, Viewfinder nails its tone and atmosphere. The visuals manage to mingle a variety of different art styles, and with music that coats every level like a warm blanket, I truly felt like I was living an Alice in Wonderland experience with a tenderly narrated story. On that same note, while its narrative never quite captured my attention, its satisfying conclusion still gave me goosebumps.
Viewfinder’s greatest flaw might be that it’s far too short. After grabbing a handful of collectibles and completing every challenge, I wrapped up my time with the story at around five hours. The short runtime especially stung as I didn’t come across many true head-scratchers until three-fourths of the way through. A final time-based challenge does at last reveal the full potential of Viewfinder’s mechanics, but it’s a massive shame that it arrives just as the show is coming to an end.
Even so, I know I’m left upset only because I need more from this world. Viewfinder could have been a shallow, unfocused snapshot of a cool idea. Instead, it’s a vibrant collage of levels that offer a peek at the depth of one brilliant mechanic.
Viewfinder is out now for $24.99 on PC and PlayStation 5.
Watch the Review in 3 Minutes for Viewfinder.