It’s often said that there is beauty in simplicity. Though adages like this are so easily refuted, there are plenty of occasions in which they still ring true. In video games, simplicity can mean a lot of things. Graphics and effects could utilize the art styles of older games to evoke nostalgia. Sound and music may rely on outdated synthesizer technology or loop a relatively short soundtrack and construct a familiar aural integrity. Gameplay may use only small twists when implementing long standardized mechanics. Of course, these efforts run the risk of being too outdated and even clichéd if not implemented properly, but when done well you will often find that even with old parts you can always build something new and satisfying. The game I am looking at today is one I feel manages to do just that: it uses 16-bit style graphics and simple, yet enjoyable gameplay to construct a surprisingly good game. I’m talking about the puzzle/platformer game Camera Obscura.
Like many of the games I’ve reviewed so far, I stumbled across Camera Obscura while browsing Steam and bought it in a package of four games that were on sale for a price that seemed worth the risk. The other games in the bundle were, to be honest, underwhelming. They were cute enough, but lacked polish to make them feel like genuinely complete games. While I have no doubt they were in their final forms, the controls and design left a little to be desired. I only bring these games up, however, to indicate that there is indeed a gem hidden within the bundle that should not be passed up for fear it too may disappoint. It does not.
In Camera Obscura you play a young woman who explores a mysterious tower. As she climbs up and up, she encounters common platforming obstacles such as long leaps, bottomless pits and enemies. What makes her adventure unique though is her camera’s ability to snap a picture of the stage and produce a “negative” of the image that can follow her for a short duration of time as a new, solid platform. After a second or so the negative freezes in place, persisting for several seconds before disappearing. This allows the player to reach parts of the tower that they couldn’t normally get to, utilizing the layout of the stage in a whole new way.
As you explore the tower, you will find photographs that you can collect. Some of them are along the way while others require some added effort to reach. Collecting them reveals background on the explorer and the tower itself, which is fun to have but not necessary if all you want is to make it to the end of the stage. Your collection is viewable through the main menu and the stage select makes it simple enough to return and collect photographs you may have passed up. Though it is possible to fall or be hit by an enemy, the game is mostly pretty forgiving about mistakes, returning you quickly to the start of the stage. The core challenge is found in figuring out how to best manipulate the negative feature in order to accomplish your goals.
One of my favorite aspects of the gameplay is that you are capable of toying with the platforming element and discover many interesting ways to reach the goal. While there are definitely primary ways intended for beating a level, you can use some of the more complex levels to construct your own path through good timing and experimentation. This offers a sort of satisfaction that is reminiscent of older platformers on earlier consoles, that of playing and replaying to discover which new ways you can try to get to the end of a stage. Even though oftentimes this experimental approach to platforming tends to be the result of unintentional design, a good platformer will still feel complete and satisfying in spite of its exploitable elements. Camera Obscura accomplishes this, offering variety through function rather than form.
It’s ironic that Camera Obscura manages to succeed by forgoing flashy gimmicks, considering its sole gimmick is literally a flash, but this game’s throwback art and simple soundtrack are really what make it a strong addition to platform gaming. If you pick it up you won’t be disappointed. It’s a platformer that can be played by anyone looking for a casual, yet intriguing platformer. Newcomers and veterans alike will be pleased by this game that is equal parts nostalgia and innovation. I highly recommend it and hope you enjoy it if you decide to give it a try.