A photo can capture victory, defeat, love, hate, a dog at the beach, or a sassy cat stretching in the sunlight. It’s a medium that speaks simply but can have a strong effect. Viewfinder makes that effect literal as its photos shift and warp the real world in all sorts of ways, which the game uses as the basis for its puzzles. And even though it’s an impressive mechanic, the rest of the experience is almost as two-dimensional as an actual photo.
It’s difficult to understate how stunning that mechanic is, though. Projecting a 2D picture into the 3D world and then discovering how that perspective translates to another dimension is immediately dazzling, especially when it smashes together disparate art styles. It adds literal depth to these images and lets players explore the previously unexplorable. And while adding a dimension to predetermined 2D images is a unique thrill, taking pictures of the existing environment to transform it is liberating because of the amount of control it yields.
It’s a core mechanic that’s as fresh and flexible as a portal gun, but it leaves much of its vast potential untapped. Most levels often only require a couple steps that are obvious after just a few seconds. Far too many are hardly more complicated than taking a picture of a battery and then rotating it or duplicating batteries through even more photos. Snapping a photo of a flat wall and using it as a bridge to get to an out-of-reach area is also another popular solution Viewfinder frequently uses as a crutch in lieu of something more sophisticated. Players are pushed into patterns and hardly encouraged to think critically — fatal flaws for any puzzle game.
Because of these simplistic solutions, Viewfinder is more like a string of tutorial missions desperately stretching out the most basic form of the mechanics in an effort to distract players from how thin it is. Its well-paced rollout of new twists — like walls that are unaffected by the player’s camera — are similarly underbaked. Viewfinder is a relaxing experience with a saturated art style that reinforces that mood, but a puzzle game that doesn’t provide much resistance isn’t much of a puzzle game.
Its handful of inconsistently interspersed optional missions stick out since they require the kind of out-of-the-box thinking the rest of the game is lacking. Solutions unfold at a steady clip in these sections and elicit more than a couple drops of gratification upon completion. But sequestering that level of intricacy — and the intrinsic reward tied to it — to a few side objectives that are easy to miss is frustrating.
Viewfinder Review: The final verdict
It’s ironic that a game all about breathing life into pictures can’t breathe life into its own core mechanic. Witnessing a flat picture expand into something tangible or using photography to reposition the existing stage is a technical marvel that hardly goes beyond being just a visual spectacle. These systems deserve much more than that, but, like film lacking contrast, it’s underdeveloped and only a faint outline of what it should be.
Disclaimer: This Viewfinder review is based on a PS5 copy provided by the publisher. Reviewed on version 1.001.000.