Developer: Sad Owl Studios
Release Date: July 18, 2023
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Thunderful Publishing
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
There are some games that are best left experiencing with little to no knowledge of. Developer Sad Owl Studio has taken the concept of image manipulation to tell a rather captivating story in their new video game, Viewfinder, that I wasn’t prepared for. Across its unique puzzle system, there’s a rather unique narrative that because more complex across each level.
Viewfinder wastes no time getting you into the action, with the game starting without any introduction to the world or characters. You aren’t even sure who or what you are during these moments, but a voice is present as you get acclimated to the gameplay mechanics. It’s sort of a surprise when the vale is lifted, and you begin to understand what this fantastical world really is and your overall goal.
Reality is in trouble as global warming has brought human life to the point of chaos. However, there’s hope after a group of scientists discovered a means of preventing catastrophe, but the lines are blurred on their whereabouts and the role that you play in retrieving this information. The cast of characters grows to include several other voices played across audio recordings and a cat who exists in the world and provides context to the various locations.
While moving from puzzle to puzzle, the story becomes a significant highlight of the experience. It’s rather mature in some scenes as it touches on some tough topics beyond the scope of global warming and includes relationships and other struggles. Still, many of these nuances can be skipped if you wish to simply treat the game as a puzzle adventure. I’d argue against this, given how important these moments are to the enjoyment of the experience, which is why I didn’t like that the voiceover would cut if I went to a new location while a character was talking. I feel like I missed out on some lines of dialogue because I didn’t wait around.
Gameplay utilizes image manipulation to progress through the levels. This begins as a rather basic system of finding a picture, placing it, and using it to access new areas. However, in the later levels, new elements are introduced to add complexity to the puzzle designs.
On that note, I don’t think the developers were ever trying to stump the player throughout the campaign. While the stages do become challenging, the evolution of the puzzle design keeps you learning new skills before entering a situation where you have to use some advanced techniques to progress. If you spend too long in an area, there’s also a hint system found in the menu.
While you be consistently moving forward through the campaign, there are optional challenge stages available that take the gameplay elements found throughout the stage and really push your understanding of the systems. The puzzles themselves can be tackled in multiple ways with room to experiment. It’s also possible to brute force some puzzles, but the developers don’t seem to mind you experimenting and exploring.
There are five hubs where you’ll interact with portals that begin a stage. Each hub has a variety of stages that adds to the complexity of the puzzle designs. Further, I felt like each area told its own story. There’s reason to explore outside of placing pictures around and solving puzzles. It’s possible to find collectibles, notes, and audio files that expand on the events that took place before you arrived. It’s also nice to see the amount of detail the designers put into crafting these stages. There’s just a lot to look at, and when there’s nothing, there’s at least a cat to pet.
As the puzzle complexity evolves, you’ll gain access to tools such as a copier machine, camera, and even stage-specific upgrades to jump higher. It’s possible to completely ruin all chances of completing a puzzle if you put a picture in the wrong area, but thankfully, there’s a rewind feature to try different approaches. I liked this feature more than simply restarting a puzzle because you never lose progress and can quickly replace a photo if you cut off your access to an area.
The entire campaign took me a little over 6 hours, which I felt was the perfect amount of time to spend in this world. There’s reason to go back and find secret items or complete some of the challenge levels, but this is definitely a game that you can’t help but want to finish the moment you begin. The subtle mystery that unfolds and the build-up of questions that slowly get answered makes it tough to step away from.
The overall tone of Viewfinder can be described as relaxing. The music goes well with the fantasy world, which puts very little pressure on the player. Even during moments when I was struggling to figure out the solution, the overall design of the world kept me at peace. Still, I felt the movement was a little slow at times when I was just trying to complete a puzzle.
Viewfinder is as serine as it is challenging. From the very beginning, this game will captivate you through its unique image manipulation puzzle design and narrative. The explorable areas complement the experience as the situation becomes more complex as the narrative is revealed. The clever and unique puzzle designs set the stage for a very special adventure.
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