The Viewfinder Logo overtop a fragmented, disjointed black and white set of platforms at different angles. In the background is a cloudy sky with some very distant buildings floating in it.

Viewfinder Review

Game: Viewfinder
Genre: Puzzle, Platformer, Surreal
System: Steam (Windows) (also available on PlayStation)
Developer|Publisher: Sad Owl Studios | Thunderful Publishing
Age Rating:
 US E | UK 3+
Price: US 24.99 | UK £ 19.99 | EU € 24,99
Release Date: July 18th, 2023

Review code provided with many thanks to Plan of Attack.

Viewfinder is a unique game where players have to bend reality to move through various puzzles. It covers a variety of types of puzzles throughout its 4-6ish-hour runtime.

The Gameplay and Story of Viewfinder

It’s super hard to describe the gameplay of Viewfinder without stumbling over the amazing concepts in the world. Basically, you have to use photos to create new platforms and spaces; then you can walk into the photo as though it were real. It’s as crazy as it sounds; just look at the gameplay trailer below:

Viewfinder forces the player to think around crazy spaces in unique ways, altering landscapes, and using pieces of the sky to cut away portions of fences and other objects to get through obstacles. It’s a mind-bending type of puzzle game. It reminds me of many different games, from The Witness to Echochrome, but takes the concepts to a level that challenges the very fabric of the reality of the spaces you walk through. Then you can just rewind back through time if you find yourself stuck.

A stone balcony overlooking a cloudy sky, with a collection of purple plants growing out of the cracks. A giant pillar stands in the middle of the balcony. There is a video game screenshot from an old, 8-bit game, and it appears to be 3-d as it is at an angle.
Anything can be a 3-d world to walk through, from screenshots to paintings.

At a point in Viewfinder, you get a camera, which further changes your ability to mess with your surroundings. You are inside a digital archive, digging through the world’s landscape. Viewfinder is quite linear, and it tells the story of several scientists who used a digital metaverse to speed up their research into various topics.

Players get to experience the digital world through the eyes of the original five scientists that worked inside of it through the use of journals and voice files. Interacting with each brings players closer to their goal as well as closer to the truth. While it starts as a fun, wholesome time, players get pulled deeper and deeper into the lives of those who trend this digital landscape before you. You get to experience the hardships, the breakups, the in-fighting as you solve their puzzles.

A picture of a journal with two drawings of different flowers, one in blue, one in yellow. The other page of the journal has some handwritten text. It reads, "I've been working on a series of paintings, one to represent each of us. It's a great way to document history! Hiraya has been rather shy about it and Mirren has avoided the conversation all together. I have to look for Chi Leung for support. He promised to help but only if I beat him in Mahjong, which is entirely unfair. Hopefully, with the help of a cute kitty, I might be able to cheat. Sometimes, being a little devious is okay. Especially if it's for the greater good. Like Art!"
Each character is fleshed out until you start to feel like they are people you have met.

Some Amazing Puzzles and Great Features

Viewfinder is filled to the brim with some amazing ideas and is highly polished. There was only one instance where I experienced a buggy wall; a solid object that I should have been able to walk on top of turned out to have no collision. It didn’t even phase me when I fell off of the world, though. I just rewound time and picked up where I left off, making the little bug not even matter. Whoever thought of making a fast and easy rewind feature over at Sad Owl Studios is an absolute genius.

This screenshot shows what rewinding time looks like in Viewfinder. An overlay looks like a rewinding VHS with the fuzzy lines on the screen. A couple of photos of skylines sit in front of the lines in the player's hand.
Messed up? No problem, I’ll just rewind the world a few seconds.

The puzzles are so clever; there was never once a time where I got a hint for a puzzle and was like, “Oh that was dumb” or “I never would have thought of that on my own.” The different types of puzzles come together in a synergistic way that feels so good. Every puzzle is like a warm, serotonin-filled hug.

I think the hint system is a little weird, but it works for the game. If Viewfinder was significantly longer, I think I would have gotten annoyed with it, but it works for what it is. The Hint system is invisible until players reach a certain amount of time in a puzzle; the hints only appear in the menu if you’ve been stuck for a minute. I didn’t play with it too much, but I think the hints that I manipulated the game into giving me seemed to be worthwhile and helpful.

The hint menu in the game. It reads: "Chapter 5 Level 1.5. Hint: Think about where you stand when your photo is taken."
The hint doesn’t give everything away but still gives you enough to go on while you are trying to solve the puzzle.

The Depth of the Lore in Viewfinder

There. Is. So. Much. Lore. In. Viewfinder.

My goodness, it was everywhere. From little Post-it notes to journals, I learned to recognize all the scientists’ voices, quirks, hobbies, and even handwriting. These interactions were optional, but I sought them out to learn more about Mirren, Hiraya, Chi Leung, Aheron, and CAIT.

They all felt like full characters, with thoughts, feelings, and even a weird sense of humour.

A blackboard reads "What do you call a melon that commits a crime? A water felon."
I laughed out loud when I found the Post-it with the answer.

I felt like I was getting to know Aheron through his paintings; I got to travel through them and see every aspect of his creativity. I saw his hand-drawn and painted masterpieces, walking through each one and seeing what kind of new worlds he could create.

The road a painted world leads into a black white sketch of another.
Absolutely stunning and surreal.

Seeing the puzzles that each different person created, then combining them at the end… It was incredibly powerful and unimaginably beautiful.

A black-and-white, handdrawn building sits in an outdoor space. There is a door to a different colored world.
Pretty!

Most of the puzzles had multiple solutions too, which made Viewfinder all the more fun to play. All of this culminated together in a way that made me incredibly sad when the game ended. I was going to miss CAIT, the AI program that followed me worldwide in the form of a cat (who you can totally pet). I wanted to stay in that world forever; this could have been a hundred-hour-long game, and it still wouldn’t have felt like enough.

The cat-like critter, CAIT, sits above a teleporter. The background is empty, just black with white outlines of boxes. The subtitle reads, "Tell me, the red world that awaits you... Is it loving? Is it healing?"
Don’t go CAIT! I love you.

The Problems with Viewfinder

Overall, I didn’t have any issues with Viewfinder except for a few minor nitpicks. I don’t think that knowing these ahead of time would have changed my desire to play the game, but I will state them briefly, as I think they are important.

The first was the hint system: I know when I am lost in a puzzle and cannot figure it out without a hint or something. It was a little frustrating that I just had to wait until Viewfinder decided that I had floundered around long enough and took pity on me. This little bit of autonomy taken away from me felt bad. It wasn’t too annoying, but it was something that dampened my enjoyment of one of the puzzles that I was completely lost on from the beginning.

The view of a wall through the viewfinder of an old fashion point-and-click camera.
You can take photos in this game and then walk into the photos. Amazing.

Another thing about Viewfinder that really got under my skin: You can sit literally anywhere except for the tram. There is a tram-thingy that brings players to new locations. You ride along a track, and the whole thing is lined with seats.

In the actual levels and stages, players can sit in any chair along the way. The game invites you to sit in chairs, on benches, and across sofas and enjoy the view. Take in the scenery; look at every detail. Really soak in the peaceful nature of this digital world. There are even instances where you can sit down on top of someone’s stuff, like if paint tubes or food has been left in a chair, you can totally sit on it.

But the one place where you would probably want to sit the most, the trolley thingy, you can’t sit down. It was so weird, but it really upset me. Why would CAIT do this to me?

A split picture; on the left is a bench with a colorful pillow on it, inviting the players to press E to sit on it. In the right half, a picture of a cat-like avatar sitting on a bench in a trolley.
Come on CAIT, I want to sit down. Please let me know. You let me sit down everywhere else.

And my last complaint, which you probably already saw coming, is that it isn’t long enough. I feel like there is so much to Viewfinder that cutting it off at the end was not doing it justice. You have the ability to walk into photos, take pictures and walk into them, photocopy pictures, copy objects, and more, and it feels like there is a lot more potential game there.

A photocopier makes photo copies of a photograph.
I want five copies of this photo, please; I need more batteries.

However, that being said, I must reiterate that I probably would have been sad to see it end, no matter how long it was. It is a full game; I got my money’s worth, so to speak. It’s a fabulous title with the most life and love I’ve seen in a video game.

But, at the same time, I hope very much that there is DLC for Viewfinder.

Conclusion

A picture of a bathroom with two teleporters in it. There is also a massive, claw footed tub and some boxes.
Time to teleport!

Viewfinder is one of the most unique puzzle games out there right now. It feels like a Myst or a The Witness with its deep lore and beautifully-rendered world. It feels hopeful and lovely. It messes with your head like Echochrome. It feels gorgeous and real. The characters are charming, unique, and special. The puzzles are challenging and well done.

Several lit up wires lead to see-through, overlapping screens, each with one of the four printing colors to make the full spectrum of color: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Each set of levels is distinct; each plays with the favourite kind of puzzles of the scientist that lived in it. The whole thing feels lived in, worked in, and loved.

A picture of a teleporter leading to another level, with the words "Teleport to optional challenge" on it.
There are optional levels and collectables in each stage.

Overall, I cannot be happier with Viewfinder than I am. This game is a complete experience and one that I was very sad to see end. I am absolutely blown away by the game’s physics, how polished it is, and how well everything works together. In all honesty, I don’t think two thumbs up is enough.

Final Verdict: Two Thumbs Up
Two thumbs up

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