After meeting with the devs of the game at the recent BitSummit 2023, I discovered that Viewfinder was just about to launch shortly afterwards, so now is the time for a proper review. ViewFinder is a new puzzle game that makes you think out of the box just like Portal did a few years ago, with a very original idea and an amazing execution. It’s been in development since 2019.
This time it’s again about some kind of portals
A short video will make it easy to understand what the whole thing is about, but in short: you pick up 2D photos in each level, and you can use these 2D photos to apply them to the 3D reality around you. When you apply a 2D photo onto the world, it projects a new 3D space coming from the photo on the existing 3D world. For example, if you project something that looks like a bridge onto a gap between two platforms, the bridge will be created in the missing space.
If you project the picture of a room onto an empty space, you will be able to go and walk into that room. Pictures can be of any shape and form. In the beginning you work with black and white pictures so everything you project is black and white as well, which makes it easy to understand where is the original world and where are the parts you just added. But it does not stop with realistic black and white pictures. You can also go into drawings, or paintings - it does not happen often but the effect is surprising and amazing - it feels like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
In each level the point is to reach the next teleporter, either by physically reaching it (i.e. it’s not readily next to you in the beginning) or powering it - to power it you usually need two or three batteries for example, and your quest turns into having to go and find such batteries.
A lot of inception
How far can you go with just pictures? Turns out, very far. After you get used to the regular few tricks involving pictures, the game throws you new elements to make things a lot more complex. For example, they add some broken frames which contain several smaller parts of the same picture, and once you are in the exact right spot, you see the full picture and what it represents and that space turns into an actual 3D space by itself. The more interesting mechanic is when they start introducing fixed cameras in the mix. You can used such fixed cameras to take pictures - and then such pictures can be used for whatever purpose you can imagine. For example, you can’t reach a teleporter because it’s upside down and attached to the ceiling? Just find a way to take a picture of it, then turn the picture around, apply it and go in it to reach the teleporter and voila!
You only have one battery to power a teleporter that requires two or three? Just place the battery in a specific spot that’s visible from the camera, take a picture, and apply that picture so that you jump into that world to get your extra (copied) battery. None of this is obvious the first time you play - and you have never seen that before in any game either, which is why is it deserves to be called a true mind-bender.
Then they later introduce the ability to take your own pictures with a portable camera, and much later in the game fixed cameras with timers. Yes, this means you can take pictures of yourself. This brings some new ways to solve the late-game puzzles.
Are the puzzles open-ended, with different solutions possible? Kind of. For some puzzles you have different ways to proceed. For others, your degree of freedom is marginal because it’s just one way to solve things because of strict constraints.
Not just puzzles
While I don’t want to spoil anything, there is more to the game that just puzzles. You have someone called Jessie talking to you while you are going around, and a strange cat called CAIT who’s hanging around and commenting on what’s happening now and then. Add to that some recordings available in different places, and you see that they take every element in the book to include some backstory to the whole experiment. To be fair, the narration is not very strong and feels like something that was added on top of a proven gameplay later on. It does not really integrate that much with the concept of pictures and cameras. Portal did a much tighter job, which is why it remains legendary to this day.
Viewfinder has a very distinctive visual style. Viewfinder has a huge focus on beautiful, airy spaces and furniture that matches the environments. In every level you are in the middle of nowhere, on some kind of floating platform inside the void. It’s a real pleasure to look at. It’s a shame that most of it is just purely static. It lacks a little bit of life, of movement. Some butterflies, or birds where it makes sense would have helped to bring that additional touch.
A Marvel on the Steam Deck
The demo was already working perfectly on the Steam Deck back when it was released, and the full game does not change any of that. The default settings are however not the best (ULTRA shadows? Come on…) and after tweaking a few of them, I can make the game run at steady 50 FPS (Vsync) at just 6W of GPU power which means a rather long battery life for this game (and it still looks great).
Running out of Inspiration
I finished the game, and I have three main observations:
- The beginning is excellent and thrilling. It makes you wonder what comes next. And, after maybe 30 minutes in the game, you’ll find that it’s just more of the same for the next 3-4 hours until the end. It’s just another teleporter puzzle with or without batteries after another, and while it does not get boring, it feels like the game keeps you busy instead of entertained.
- The levels are overall too easy. I am not sure if it’s a fundamental problem with the mechanics, the fact that taking pictures gives you too much power in some way, but the fact is I was never stuck for more than a few minutes. I like when the difficulty is not impossible yet challenging enough, and Viewfinder tends to lack challenge.
- Inconsistent rules: this one feels not really fair. After presenting you with rules on how things work in that world, Viewfinder keeps changing rules from one level to the next. You see something and take a picture of it? This time the whole picture becomes blank for no good reason. And you have to find what will actually work in said level by trial and error. Even the first few levels in the game introduced the possibility to jump into paintings as in you were going into another world, but later breaks that concept completely by making them very limited and constrained spaces. It feels a little like cheating. Going back to Portal again - Portal did not need to change the rules in order to stay relevant from beginning to end.
Viewfinder is a truly amazing tech demo that sadly did not materialize into a longer game. I’m not the right person to tell you what they should have done differently. It just creates huge expectations from the start and… stops there into a midly interesting puzzle game. It feels like that this should have been Portal-level material, but fell short of getting there.
But I still want to applaude the effort. The premise is fantastic, and even if the resulting game is not as great as it sets out to be, it gets a 10/10 for originality and WOW effect.