Viewfinder review

Release Date
18th July 2023
Sad Owl Studios
PlayStation 5, PC (tested)

Until recently, I always thought of myself as someone who prefers their games to have a compelling story rather than being purely about the gameplay. But when The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom came along, I was far more interested in the mechanics of Link’s new abilities and their possibilities for endless creativity than I was about the narrative. Viewfinder, too, has a perfectly serviceable story, but it pales in comparison with the sublime, physics-bending gameplay, that, at times, feels like pure magic.

Viewfinder review

Viewfinder review

Thrusted into a strange world between the clouds, you take control of an un-named character as they navigate their way through a series of discreet environmental puzzles to reach a teleporter to the next level. At the most basic level, Viewfinder’s mechanic allows you to pick up (or take) a 2D photo, painting, or image in the world and click to bring the image to life in a 3D space.

For example, trying to get to the teleporter in one of the earlier levels requires you to reach a ledge that is just too high for you to jump. A quick scan of the environment reveals a black-and-white photograph of a high-rise building, hanging above a desk. Holding the photo up near the ledge – and with a quick spin of the scroll button to get the right angle – the side of the high-rise becomes a handy, three dimensional ramp up to the top.

Transitioning from the two-dimensional image to three-dimensional space is seamless, to the point where it feels like actual goddamn wizardry. These impossible geometries feel like stepping inside an Escher painting, then tearing it up and starting again. Sure, the novelty does wear away after a little while, but Viewfinder keeps adding new variations on this mechanic as you progress – increasing the challenge and the amount of audible gasps you’ll make irl.

Viewfinder review

Cheesing it

Viewfinder’s puzzles are pleasantly challenging, without being obtuse, but the levels themselves all take place in small, confined spaces which can be a little claustrophobic towards the end. As bold as the puzzles are, it feels like Sad Owl Studios could’ve pushed the envelope further and had us playing with geometry and physics on a grander scale.

But the game isn’t all about getting from A to B with a puzzle in between. In fact, Viewfinder rewards playfulness and creativity. After a couple of hours, for example, I stumble across a discarded barcode, which, when placed into the world, becomes a beautiful monochrome forest of slender, black trees that I spend a good few minutes meandering through.

Like Tears of the Kingdom, Viewfinder encourages you to approach each puzzle from different perspectives, often quite literally through the camera viewfinder. As with the shrines in Link’s latest outing, there’s often a particular way to solve a puzzle (as the developers intended), or you can use brute force to find different – sometimes inelegant – creative methods to reach your goal.

Viewfinder review

Lo-fi beats to relax/study to

For a world in which you mess around with the fundamentals of physics, it’s a surprisingly peaceful, (dare I say) cosy place. At one point, I choose to take a break in one of the game’s many lounge chairs and admire the vibrant green plants surrounding me. To my side, a dark-wood side table stands adorned with a brass tea set from the Middle East, as I observe the twilight creeping in, creating long shadows that intersect with the sound of raindrops on terracotta. Before long, I’m closing my eyes to appreciate the rhythm of the rain and find myself tapping my toes to the soothing, lo-fi beats.

These moments of stillness are interspersed with a series of voice-logs that play out through retro phonographs, telling tales of a group of scientists trying to avert a climate disaster. The voice acting is a little questionable in parts, but the real issue is the disconnect between gameplay and narrative – the latter feeling like it’s been tacked on to the former.

Viewfinder review

Final thoughts

Viewfinder is an accomplished puzzler with sublime gameplay. Narratively, it lacks pace and the environmental message feels contrived, but fortunately, this barely detracts from some of the most wondrous moments I’ve had in a game for a while.

Viewfinder review
Fantastic photo mechanic
Challenging but fair puzzles
Super chill score
Story is a little lacklustre