Released last August, Layers of Fear enjoyed quite the positive reception when it brought its inspired take on psychological horror to Steam Early Access. While an unfinished game, it gained a lot of popularity within the horror genre, then utilizing player feedback to expand upon the developer’s vision and fine-tune the experience. And rather than compromise its quality for cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel type scares, Bloober Team designed something showing a lot of promise and restraint. When I played the game in September, I came away impressed, ready for the full experience to release and meet my expectations. Well, here we are. How does the complete version of Layers of Fear measure up? Let’s dive in.
If you’re unfamiliar with Layers of Fear, the basic premise is that you play as a tortured painter trapped in his home, left to uncover the reasons why he’s there and the source of the nightmarish manifestations around him. It’s a psychological horror game through and through, and by that I mean you’ll be subjected to abstract horrors non-stop. Are these experiences an analog to a specific mental illness? I don’t suspect; I suppose this up for debate. But as far as “crazy for the sake of crazy” psychological horror games go, Layers of Fear has a lot of flair and is not insensitive when it comes to the subject matter.
When I first played Layers of Fear, I noted how the scares felt surprisingly imaginative throughout the game’s length, and that remains true with the final product. Bloober Team went through the game finding the best ways to frighten players, ensuring scares met the player’s eye and were not missed. Layers of Fear has a bunch of jump scares, but they’re well developed and instill a strong sense of dread. Simply having your back turned to a sound creates unease as you’re bound to come face to face with something unexpected.
Layers of Fear is one of many games that marks Kojima Productions’ P.T. as an inspiration for its style of horror. While this is quickly becoming an overused marketing move for games that emulate more than innovate, Layers of Fear thankfully achieves the latter. Outside of one particular scene / entity shamelessly pulled from P.T., Layers of Fear crafts a distinct identity within the horror genre, making full use of its protagonist’s occupation as a painter to deliver to players strange and unsettling depictions, from transformative environments to ghoulish interpretations of XIX century paintings. The game’s graphical fidelity isn’t fantastic by any means, but the art direction oozes atmosphere.
A word of advice for those playing on PC: I’d recommend turning off head bob and Chromatic Aberration – two visual effects that caused me some discomfort after extended play.
Layers of Fear approaches its narrative in a fun, classic horror kind of way. On one hand, the game lets players explore the protagonist’s past via notes, monologs and diary entries scattered about. These pieces of text begin to paint a picture of the past leading up to the game’s hellish events. But on the other hand, Layers of Fear employs some very subtle symbolism in its horrors that harken back to games like Silent Hill 2, where the twisted imagery provides some additional interpretative context to fill in blanks about the protagonist’s past. The story isn’t amazing, nor is it very substantial given its short length (2-3 hours), but it services the ride through the game’s horrors, leaving some room for plot theorizing. This is very refreshing given the number of horror games we receive that leave little to the imagination.
What I like the most about Layers of Fear is that it feels very focused. It’s a walk through a haunted house, starring room after room of new terrors, and the momentum builds nicely. You’re given a reprieve between objectives, but only for a little while. Then the cycle continues, with bizarre occurrences more terrifying than the last. Unfortunately, if you’re an avid horror fan, you may begin to predict scare placements over time, but you’ll probably still be surprised by what is jumping out at you.
Some predictable jump scares aside, Layers of Fear is an enjoyable downward spiral into madness, notable in its level design and game’s structure. Sit back and give this one a go, preferably in one sitting with the lights off and sound up.