Platforms: PC, PS4 and Xbox One
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Review code provided free of charge by the publisher.
The growing trend of walking simulators, as they’ve become known within the gaming community, has led to a surge of horrible horror games that are barely worth the time it takes to sigh in their general direction. However, buried away are games worth finding and experiencing, that make supremely compelling arguments for the existence of the genre. Layers of Fear, much like Stanley Parable, is one such game, placing you into the role of a disturbed painter exploring his distorted, twisted house, an impossible piece of architecture that constantly reshapes itself. Though marketed as a horror game Layers of Fear is truthfully something I prefer much more; a chiller. It never terrifies, rather it instills a dread chill in your spine that lingers from the very start of the game, and then continues even after you’ve stopped playing. It’s not a deep game with much to say on insanity and the madness of its character, but nevertheless it’s a whole lot of creepy fun.
So yes, it is walking simulator, at least in the sense of what most people view one as. There is no death in the game and aside from a few basic puzzles your main method of interaction is to simply explore the house and experience its bizarre and bloody story. You can open doors and drawers, turn on lights and do things with the occasional object, but otherwise everything is done through the simple act of choosing where to go, sometimes following the linear route and other times choosing which door or direction to head in, although choice is merely an illusion in Layers of Fear. The game is always in control. There’s no true fail method, either. You cannot get stuck or become unable to progress. The closest thing Layers of Fear has is that certain areas and therefore pieces of story can become locked off to you depending on the choices you make when navigating, inaccessible unless you restart that area. But you shouldn’t, because that would be spoiling the journey.
And what a journey it is. As you explore you uncover the history of the clearly deranged painter, his wife and their child through a variety of clues, but to get those clues you must first get through the house. It’s no ordinary house, though, as it quickly becomes apparent just how impossible its architecture is, new doors and corridors appearing when you aren’t looking, creating a maze to navigate that’s vast in size. You might enter a room to find the furniture somehow on the ceiling, so you spin around to turn the lights on and by time you turn back around the room looks entirely normal. You may enter an area that looks pretty standard, and then when you return everything is looking a little rough for wear. By time you enter a third time every is a mess, and floating. Another example is how you enter a room and find a wall with a painting, so you turn around but suddenly there’s another wall with a smaller painting where the door was. Confused you turn around again and there’s a door, sitting there like it has always been there. You’ll walk in circles before figuring out you need to go back the way you came to progress, or seemingly get stuck only to find that the ceiling has vanished. There’s no layout you can memorize, no mental map that you can build. You can’t trust the house because it’s in a state of constant flux, and that’s unsettling. The further you explore the stranger things become, with a single room that you come across frequently acting as a sort of respite, a small area that houses all the notes, clues and things of interest that you’ve discovered, a handy way of keeping track of everything that has occurred. It’s in this room that you slowly build up the painter’s magnum opus, his masterpiece that he’s determined to finish no matter what. It’s around this painting that the dark story unfolds, the tale of its creation slowly revealed based on how you’ve been playing the game.
From a purely visual standpoint the game is sublime, as the developers use the constantly changing house to create some truly awe-inspiring imagery. Sometimes it is small things, like how lighting a candelabra doesn’t illuminate the room with flames but rather a child’s drawing of flames upon the wall, or how touching a piano sends everything in the room floating up into the air. There are sections where everything changes so frequently that you’re left baffled and amazed. I can’t count how many times I forgot about the creepiness of the house and just goggled at the incredible design work. I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the game, but suffice to say that when it comes to creative imagery this game is just gorgeous.
If it all sounds a like heady, then it is to a small degree. You’re changing the house as much as the house is affecting you, and it’s clearly a game about exploring the psyche of a painter whom tragedy has struck. There is very little depth below that imagery, however. I think it’s fairly obvious to say the twisted, labyrinthine house is a less than subtle representation of the painter’s mind, a visual tour of his mental journey through the realms of insanity, but the game doesn’t have a whole lot to say about it. There’s the occasional piece of symbolic imagery, but mostly this is a very straightforward story told through a very visual style. Quite a few reviews have touched upon this lack of subtext or of any deeper message, meaning or opinions, and it is a fair and valid criticism, but to my mind it doesn’t hamper the game. I love movies, books and games that offer plenty of depth that can be examined and analysed, and yet enjoying a straightforward tale can be equally pleasurable. Layers of Fear does this well, and while it would have been nice to see the developers take their mastery of creating a trippy environment to explore and use it to tell a deeper tale, what’s here remains perfectly enjoyable. All the wants to do is tell you a creepy story.
When it comes to the outright horror rather than creepiness, though, we see Layers of Fear struggling a little, packaging together inventive scares with plenty of typical horror tropes that elicit deep sighs rather than shrill screams. There’s nothing wrong with a well executed jump scare, and Layers of Fear gets some of them right, but the game is just packed with too many for its own good, and thus they lose their impact very quickly. Sudden noises are overused to make the player jump, but at least they are combined with compelling imagery. A knife might sudden appear in the door frame, making you spin around as the room turns dark and a melting portrait with rotting fruit falling out of it is revealed. Moments like that are quite cool, again making use of the brilliant style that the developers have. For every jump scare that is handled well there’s plenty that aren’t and after a while they can become predictable simply because there’s a steady rhythm to them. Likewise otherwise attempts at scaring the player will more likely just cause them to sigh. There’s only so many times you can hear a loud noise and something suddenly appearing before it becomes dull and about as scary as an angry bunny rabbit. Jump scares are a vital part of horror because they can be used as a way to release the tension, but relying on them is a mistake, one frequently made by the hundreds of cheap, pushed out horror flicks that get released.
In fact, pacing in general is a problem for this short three-hour journey. With so little time on the clock it feels like the developers attempted to pack as much horror in as physically possibly, and in the process damaged the sense of tension. Good horror needs time to breathe, downtime between the scares to let the player breath and then build the tension back up. The greatest examples of horror build and maintain tension for the entire experience, but that’s incredibly difficult and requires pinpoint balancing to work, and they still understand the important of quiet moments to let the dread settle into the mind of the viewer, or in this case player. Layers of Fear doesn’t understand either of these methods, and instead it’s a constant barrage of jumpscares or other attempts to horrify the player simply become too much, draining away some of the tension. Meanwhile tropes like a doll that laughs and cries and a rotting corpse shambling the halls are about as generic as they come, although executed well enough that when combined with the strong atmosphere and theme you don’t mind too much.
It’s not enough to stop the game from being creepy. The attempts at complete mind-numbing horror might fail, but in terms of atmosphere and creep factor Layers of Fear wins. It’s hard to talk about how effective the game is at building atmosphere without spoiling anything, but suffice to say that even as an avid horror fan I still found myself walking through the corridors of the house with a sense of tension and dread. I found that impressive because I tend to view almost all horror films, and by extension horror games, as more darkly comedic, the absurdity of it all plastering a big grin on my face. Layers of Fear genuinely instilled a chill in me, regardless of whether I knew death or even failure didn’t exist within the game.
Developed on the Unity Engine Layers of Fear looks surprisingly beautiful. The house you explore is brimming with detail that successfully captures the style of the era, and has a dark, oppressive atmosphere that almost oozes from every crack and crevice. I absolutely have to tip my hat to the developers as they’ve mad a fantastic looking game. The audio is great, too, the steady thump as you walk across the wooden floors and the slight jerk in the camera combining to convey a good sense of being connected to the world, of being a part of it, and there’s some beautiful uses of music and audio throughout to set the stage. The voice acting is a little too hammy for its own good, but suits the gothic horror of it all.
Everything wraps up in one of three different possible endings that occur depending on certain things you do throughout the game. The most neutral is easily the least satisfying of the trio, but the other two are great and provide a reasonable excuse to return and have another go, especially since you’ll see things you never saw on the first go through.
Although it doesn’t fare well when aiming for full-blown horror, Layers of Fear nevertheless instills a sense of dread with every step taken, its ever-changing house a truly masterful creation that I fell in love with. It’s story is simple and shallow, but dark and macabre, making it appealing to someone like me who enjoys such tales. In other words I can easily recommend this one to anyone looking for a good chiller.