A psyche-shredding portrait of madness
Layers of Fear is not your typical horror game. Kraków, Poland-based developer Bloober Team’s surreal excursion into the mind of an anguished artist certainly delivers the requisite chills the genre demands, but it’s a far cry from the likes of say, Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Rather than fighting for survival against hordes of zombies or nightmarish demons while scrounging for ammo and precious health packs, the game instead sets players off on a journey deep into the darkest recesses of pain, sadness and torment. Truth be told, Layers of Fear has more in common with developer Fullbright’s masterful adventure game “Gone Home” than your average survival horror title, with a heavy focus on methodical exploration and delivering a powerful narrative, and it’s all the better for it. Too few games broach the deep, unsettling territory that Layers of Fear revels in, immersing the player in tension as thick as oil paint as they unravel the mystery behind the creation of a troubled artist’s macabre Magnum Opus.
Without going into spoiler territory, the game’s story revolves around an anonymous artist’s crumbling psyche as he attempts to create his greatest masterpiece. Heavily inspired by classical art from the past centuries, and the architecture and décor from the XIX century, Layers of Fear feels like a nightmare tour through a gruesome gallery of insanity. Each of the game’s six story chapters tasks players with searching the grounds of a seemingly haunted mansion that’s constantly changing as they work discover the next tool needed to complete the artist’s warped work-in-progress.
Sounds simple enough, right? However, you’ll quickly discover that nothing in Layers of Fear is ever quite as it seems. Each trip into the mansion feels like the product of an acid-induced fever dream directed by Stephen King, as stately dining rooms morph dynamically around the player into derelict hovels, wide-open corridors seamlessly shift and churn into maddeningly claustrophobic confines, and unseen forces hurl butcher’s knives and furniture across rooms like petulant poltergeists. Simply put, the developer has done a fantastic job of keeping the player on edge, never knowing what terrors lie around every corner. If you’ve played Konami’s ill-fated P.T. demo, you’ll have a pretty good idea of you’re getting yourself into here, as Bloober Team seems to have taken plenty of inspiration from Kojima’s cult classic project. Thankfully, the end result is much more than a pale imitation of the developer’s obvious muse, as Layers of Fear consistently succeeds in delivering an incredibly tense, terrifying and unpredictable pilgrimage into the mind of a madman.
Despite the mansion’s always-changing nature, the game is largely a linear experience that tends to keep players moving ahead towards their next destination. You won’t find any weapons or healing items littered around the environment, and death is very seldom a concern as you work your way through the haunting halls and creepy corridors. You’ll only encounter a handful of instances over the course of the game where you can actually be killed by the spirits that stalk the estate. And even if you do end up biting the dust it makes little difference, as the story progresses without a hitch, even after players have had their neck snapped like twigs by the game’s resident phantom. Additionally, there are only a handful of puzzles you’ll stumble across over the course of the game’s story which can be completed in just a few short hours, and those that are there likely won’t slow you down for more than a few minutes at a time. Even still, you’ll want to go off the beaten path as much as possible when exploring each area, as Layers of Fear‘s story is primarily told through notes and personal mementos that are hidden throughout the house — typically in drawers or tucked into safes secured with combination locks — which you’ll want to uncover to get the full story.
Each of the game’s six chapters begins and ends in the artist’s workshop, which serves as a hub in-between chapters. It’s here in the workshop that players will discover a scrapbook, gallery, and grim curio cabinet that allow you to keep track of the various collectibles that are hidden throughout the mansion. While the game’s admittedly brief story (a single playthough can be completed in just a couple of hours), the game’s length is just enough to keep the story’s delicate subject matter (which I won’t elaborate on for the sake of note spoiling anything) and weighty writing from losing its impact. Additionally, the game’s design encourages multiple playthroughs as well, giving players plenty of incentive to dive back in to collect any items you may have missed previously, which easily extends the game by several more hours as you attempt to fill in the blanks of the game’s story by gathering enough clues to complete the scrapbook and sketch galleries found within the workshop.
With an overall lack of interactivity apart from wandering the game’s eerie halls until you get to the next big scare, those looking for a traditional survival horror title may not find exactly what they’re looking for here. However, that’s not to say this descent into delirium isn’t worth taking. While it may not deliver the instant gratification found in other games in the horror genre, those who take the time to immerse themselves into the game’s psychotically psychedelic world will find a horror experience unlike any other. Layers of Fear is at its best when played in a dark room with a good pair of headphones, immersing players into the game’s surreal scare-scapes. Those who take their time uncovering the game’s sordid backstory by piecing together the clues scattered throughout the mansion will experience a poignant and oftentimes uncomfortable journey that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
Developer Bloober Team’s impressive art direction goes a long way towards selling the scares, too. The Unity-powered title features a wealth of haunting visual effects that work to shred your psyche. What’s more, these visual tricks are so seamlessly integrated into the experience that you sometimes won’t even realize they’re happening around you until it’s too late. One of my favorite moments happened when I wandered into a rather luxurious bedroom that had an old phonograph sitting on a table. Playing a record I had discovered nearby backwards caused the entire room to melt like wax all around me, deforming doors into impassable heaps of mangled wood, and causing the bed and other furniture to slowly deform into thick puddles on the ground. Another unsettling instance involved a mesmerizing piano melody that filled a cluttered basement, causing dozens of pieces of furniture to begin dancing through the air, swaying to the music until it was forcefully hurled to the ground. Simply put, while Layers of Fear may not be the best looking title you’ll play this year, it does a number of impressive tricks that will have players second-guessing their sanity, and you’ll want to play through the game multiple times to experience all of the surreal surprises the game has to offer.
As cool as these visual tricks are, Layers of Fear’s sound direction is just as important when it comes to selling the scares. From the eerie piano piece that greets players at the title screen to the forlorn melodies that fade in and out as you explore the mansion itself, the music, while sparse, does a fantastic job of setting a somber tone. Ambient effects, such as children crying, disembodied whispers and the howling of the wind all work together to keep the player on the edge of their seat. The only real downside to the game’s audio comes from the narration of the artist himself, whose performance is simply too over-the-top to take seriously, which is at odds with the rest of the game’s impressively artful presentation.
In closing, I can’t promise you’ll have fun when playing Layers of Fear: after all, the best horror games seldom meant to be a joyride. It’s hard not to shake the feeling of participating in some sort of solemn pilgrimage as you work your way through the game’s story, almost as if you’re atoning for someone else’s sins. Honestly, there aren’t many other games that breed quite the same feelings of constant dread and isolation that Bloober Team’s horrific Magnum Opus does, but we sure do wish there were more of them! While Layers of Fear’s overall lack of “gamey” tropes may be a turnoff to those hoping for the next big survival horror title, those brave souls who decide come along for the ride will find a finely-tuned horror experience unrivaled in its ability to get inside the head of the player. If you’re looking for a game that can truly scare the pants off of you, look no further than Layers of Fear.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (reviewed) ; Publisher: Aspyr ; Developer: Bloober Team ; Players: 1; Released: February 16, 2016; Genre: Horror; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Aspyr.