Crafting a great horror movie, or video game, is a tough thing to do. After all, not only does your storyline need to be interesting, but you also need to pay extra careful attention to the quality of the atmosphere that you create, not to mention the scares themselves. This is why so many modern horror movies fail to deliver, as shortcuts are often taken and quality sometimes isn’t front of mind.
Thankfully, the gaming industry has been doing better with its horrific output as of late, with Layers of Fear being a pretty good example of that. The game – which was just fully released on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam after spending time in both Steam Early Access and the Xbox One Game Preview Program – delivers a nightmarish experience chock full of insanity. Like a waking acid dream, it twists and turns into the unknown, taking gamers on horrific rollercoaster ride that grabs you by the short hairs and doesn’t let up much until between three and four hours have passed.
Developed by Poland’s Bloober Team and published by Aspyr Media, Layers of Fear sets out to frighten, haunt and generally unsettle those who enter its twisted corridors. However, while it’s classified as a game and is interactive through and through, what’s on offer here is better described as an experience than anything else. You do control the main character, and have both choices to make and basic puzzles to solve, but theatre takes priority over gameplay in this nightmare.
Assuming control of a formerly successful painter whose quest to reclaim his touch has cost him his sanity, gamers must explore the ever-changing rooms and corridors of a centuries old house in search of its darkest secrets. Like the paint on the chosen canvas this house never stays the same, which allows the title to keep you guessing even though its gameplay and storyline don’t fully capitalize on their potential. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game or a failure, though, because it truly is frightening and interesting. It’s just not all that it could have been.
Perhaps some of the above can be attributed to the fact that, although so much of this game is scripted, decisions made by the player (as to which paths are taken and how much exploration is done) end up resulting in different final outcomes. This is great for promoting more than one play through, but said flexibility ends up affecting the narrative as a whole.
A lot of the story is also left up to the player to discover, and collectibles are pretty well-hidden. If you try to find everything and experience as much as you possibly can, then you can expect a slow and meticulous play through that will involve searching through lots of drawers and cabinets, and exploring every inch of a constantly changing landscape. I did that, myself, and started to find that things were becoming a bit tedious, because I took so much time to look for letters, photos and newspaper clippings in mostly empty cabinets. Then again, the way this thing is structured promotes that, because you practically need to take your time in order to learn enough about the somewhat lacking storyline.
At its core, the gameplay is very much akin to that of P.T., the delisted teaser for the cancelled Kojima/Konami Silent Hills game. You walk, explore and solve light puzzles, some of which involve changing direction. Sometimes progression is blocked by a lock that needs its key or a padlock that requires its combination, but there are also times where you’ll find yourself looking for a tiny checkers piece or something of that ilk. Those are a bit tougher to find than the keys can be, although both can take a bit of searching to find, slowing things down in the process.
Walking simulators are somewhat popular these days, though, and I’ll admit to being a fan. They can work well as a means for delivering an experience like this, where a lot of the horror is coming at you and you’re a participant in a wild ride. But this isn’t up to the bar that Gone Home set, despite its disappointing ending.
That said, the game definitely began strongly, and honestly had me on the edge of my seat with tingling nerves; however, its shock value and mystique started to peter off a bit as it went along. It remained scary throughout, but by the time that the credits rolled I was wishing it had thrown more at me and taken more risks. Outside of a couple of unexpected jump scares – which are relied upon – I was never frightened to an extreme, although the developers do get credit for establishing jump scares that aren’t as predictable as many in the movies tend to be.
Of course, with Layers of Fear being the type of game that it is, good presentation is of the utmost importance. Thankfully, things are on point here, with an immersive atmosphere that includes rotting walls, decaying boards and self-destructing rooms that speak to the kind of crazy mind we’re dealing with. Although his words can show feelings of surprise and distress, his journals say otherwise, painting a frightening picture of what we’re dealing with. And, while the dialogue – especially the narration that occurs when items are discovered – can be a bit cheesy, both in terms of writing and delivery, it’s not a huge issue.
On the Xbox One, things can be hit and miss in terms of actual performance. Sometimes the frame rate will drop, or the movement will slow quite noticeably, but it’s not always easy to tell if it occurs due to a design decision or a technical problem. Things are also somewhat blurry, but that’s likely filters coming into play. Just don’t go in expecting a perfectly polished game, and know that the stuttered movement and first-person point of view may make some gamers nauseous. That’s a drawback of this genre, after all, and the main character does live with a prosthetic leg, meaning that he hobbles quite a bit.
To summarize things, Layers of Fear is a tough beast to review. While it’s mostly immersive and unsettling, and can be downright frightening at times, it still feels like it’s lacking a little something.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
Layers of Fear is an unsettling and occasionally frightening game that succeeds in keeping you on the edge of your seat, though it doesn't deliver up to its potential and ends up feeling a bit lacking.