Here comes every marketer’s favourite phrase: it’s a platforming game WITH A TWIST in Camera Obscura.
Platformers are arguably the quintessential game genre. If you ask any old Joe Bloggs off the street what comes to mind when you ask them about games, they’re going to either say Mario or Sonic. Camera Obscura comes from that same school of thought, where you go from point A to B by dodging enemies and making jumps. Standard stuff, but the key difference here is that you can create your own platforms. Your character is equipped with a camera, and hitting the B Button on a gamepad creates a duplicate image of whatever landscape is on screen. Unlike the land you walk on, this duplicate image isn’t solid, but will become so after a few seconds, so you have time to get into position, allow the duplicate image to become solid, and use your new platform to get to where you need to go. Do you ever think that the good ideas in games are all taken and now we’re just left with the complex, ridiculous, the ridiculously complex, and the complexly ridiculous? The concept of this game is a bit of a head-scratcher in theory, but completely works in practice as an instinctive thing – you’ll be able to create platforms and traverse gaps without even thinking about it, but try explaining it?
Camera Obscura puts you in the shoes of a girl with a camera who loves to take pictures, and she ventures out to a big archaic tower to find…answers. What kind of answers? The game’s sketchy on that part, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s all a set-up for you to make your way from point A to point B on the map.
So, the game, by this reckoning, is a puzzle platformer, so let’s tackle the first side of that coin to begin with. The puzzles in this game are charming, if frustrating in a kind of “this is way too early in the morning for this sorcery” kind of thing. You must use the afterimage that the camera creates to get from point A to point B which was previously inaccessible, so much of the puzzle solving will mean taking a picture, putting your afterimage in position, waiting for it to set, and running as fast as possible before the thing fades away. As it stands, this is a pretty cool concept, as it challenges you to think of the best way to clear a particularly daunting section, but more importantly, this injects life into the game. There’s a genuine sense of panic as you try and get to safe ground, being fully aware that you’re on borrowed milliseconds, and it’s this level of thrill that really makes this game worth your time.
The platforming is unlikely to set the world on fire, though. It’s hardly complex as it is; you hold right and jump when you need to. It’s unlikely to challenge anyone with a brain stem, but maybe that’s for the best. This part of the game is as inoffensive, functional, and unnoticeable as possible to not interfere with the real meat of the game, the picture-taking element. After all, it is right there in the title. One could make the case that, “oh, the platforming just isn’t a challenge”, which is completely right, but it’s only a half-point. In actuality, the running, jumping, etc. etc. all take a backseat to put extra shine on the picture-taking, which only help to make the game stand out above the sea of indie games already available out there.
Perhaps the worst – although one shouldn’t say bad, as it isn’t shoddily designed, just blood-curdlingly annoying, are the prevalence of enemies. They appear mostly in the form of amorphous blue blobs, kind of like the Flans from Final Fantasy, but a little cuter, and they’re the most annoying little sods I’ve ever come across in an indie game, because they just won’t GO AWAY. They’re like Homer in that Simpsons episode, Homer Loves Flanders, because whenever you turn around, there they are. They seem to sneak up on you when you’re either trying to make a jump or safe landing, coming into contact in the agonising seconds when you’re waiting for that after-image to develop. This isn’t necessarily a bad feature of the gameplay, not at all, but it’s a guarantee that you WILL grow to hate these hateful and interfering flan men. Happily, however, you can crush them to death using your afterimage, which provides a gleeful and sick little joy.
Wrapping up with everything, let’s give a little bit of comment to the game’s aesthetic. It’s a disappointment to say this, because the camera idea makes the game unique, but the game’s graphics just aren’t that impressive. The pixel art style is normally a safe bet for any indie game because it’s pretty, easily made and cheap to produce, especially when your dev team is in the single figures, but here, it’s unsuccessful, as Camera Obscura just ends up looking muddy and unclear. Not ugly by any means, but missing a bit of visual clarity that would have helped the game overall. The game’s preference for muted colours like browns and greys doesn’t help matters – it fits the overall tone in that you’re journeying through a high tower, promoting the sense of feeling lost, like it’s literally you, a small girl and your camera, against this big and mighty tower – get your heads out of the gutter this instant – and it works on that level, but purely superficially, it just doesn’t look great. Thankfully, the soundtrack, while sparse (there’s about 2 tracks and that’s your lot, so long, good luck) are these really chilled out and yet creepy ambient pieces that help you think, but also unnerve, and that just fits the whole package brilliantly.
So, as such, Camera Obscura is a neat, fun, and tidy little indie game with immensely satisfying puzzles that totally lives up to the asking price. The Steam RRP is usually 79p or $1.99, which is a steal, but it usually goes on sale for up to half of that price, and to be honest, you’d have to be certifiable to miss this game at that price. It’s a sweet little game that delivers for the money, not perfect by any means, but still enjoyable enough to tax you.
Verdict: An enjoyable and sweet game that definitely is worth the bargain-basement asking price, but could have been more with a little visual polish.