I am what you may call a–possibly arrogant–horror purist; I loathe the majority of so-called “horror” films, am sickened by the genre’s infection of millennial romantics, and harbor a nearly personal resentment of M. Night Shyamalan. This trinity has convoluted a good sector of the classic genre, but I think it worth mentioning whenever I bear witness to the rare instances of when horror is done right. I am relieved to say that Layers of Fear is a worthwhile trip for all kinds of traditional horror fans and gamers alike.
Layers of Fear is a first-person psychedelic horror adventure game that centers around a daft artist as he attempts to paint his magnum opus. The shapeshifting mansion he lives in serves as a maze-like backdrop while he searches its corridors for odd materials to paint with. After obvious years of personal torment and alcohol abuse, his final reoccurring goal is to finish his masterpiece before madness completely consumes him. What or who does he intend to paint, what do these hastily scrawled notes mean, and what truly happened in this man’s past? The answers can only be found by delving deep into his deranged, psychotic mind and exploring the secrets that the mansion holds firsthand.
Layers of Fear opens with an Oscar Wilde quote, and by the time I arrive at the canvas intended to portray my magnum opus, I can’t help but to subsequently think of Dorian Gray. However, I quickly wonder if the painting will end up as a beautiful portrait or something much more horrifying. At first, as I trek through the mansion’s hallways and Victorian rooms, I hear strange noises and encounter unsettling, but minor, paranormal happenings. I begin to feel like I’ve been transported into a Salvador Dali painting, inside of a Poe- and Lovecraft-created world. Before I even realize it, my nerves are on edge, I’m breathing shallowly, and my shoulders are raised high in tension. A hallway light flickers, a door slams, there’s an unsettling sound in the distance–a weeping woman. The sketchy lighting and ever-fading music serves me up for a good fright, all the while the room morphs into different shapes and sizes. I find myself obsessively switching on every lamp I come across…
I expected Layers of Fear to be trippy and questionable the moment I read the first note on the table at the very beginning. The author threatens a lawsuit if the main character continues to send threatening letters to a pest control company about how they failed to fix the pestiferous house. Immediately the story took a turn toward an unreliable narrator approach that would inevitably make you question reality and perception. Layers of Fear cleanly executes this precarious style. The story is not too penciled in; it’s up to the player to fill in the empty spaces with their own interpretations, relying on the scant few clues uncovered throughout the game. You will form your own ideas about the characters and their history, guaranteeing each player to have a unique takeaway from the horrific experience.
The setting encapsulates the story and genre expertly. Nowhere is as quite unsettling as a creepy, massive mansion during a thunderstorm. Walking through a long hallway where the furniture moves or disappears completely builds anxiety as you wait to encounter the next scare. The sound that accompanies your adventure sharpens its unease; occasionally all will be hushed while you move from room to room, opening creaky doors and surveying your surroundings, which spread tension as thick as butter. I highly recommend using headphones capable of surround sound, so you’ll be engrossed in the moment. The main character’s voice acting is incredibly ominous; the narration sounds like it comes from Heath Ledger’s Joker himself.
The psychedelic aspects of Layers of Fear either accurately hit their mark or land a little flat. Areas where the environment shifts–expounding or contracting–often throw you off solid footing. However, there are times where the psychedelics go a tad far and come across more manufactured than authentic. In these instances, you get pulled out of the frightening experience instead of plummeting deeper into it. Whenever the psychedelics went overboard, I found myself detached from the setting and my angst refreshed instead of built upon. There are a few circumstances where Layers of Fear is organically scary and others less so. As it is true in any horror novel, these authentic moments are where the game delivers the largest amount of suspense.
Unfortunately, like many horror or narrative-based games, Layers of Fear lacks deep gameplay mechanics. As the player, you really don’t interact with much. Horror games tend to benefit from player input (think Alan Wake or Resident Evil). Except for picking up key objective items, turning on lights, opening doors and occasionally solving a small puzzle, there isn’t much left for the player to do except continually walk from area to area. Layers of Fear would have made a lasting impression had there been more for the player to do instead of feeling like they’re on an everlasting treadmill. Granted, the “treadmill” does constantly transform, so at least the environment never becomes dull. But the limited character interactions and overall restricted gameplay left me yearning for more than I received.
Layers of Fear’s graphics maxed out at 1440p are a sight to behold. There are scant few optimization issues, resulting in a smooth experience. The lighting is cast flawlessly, with each room defining a feeling of the macabre. From the creepy Victorian illustrations to the hand scrawled notes, the era and atmosphere is admirably depicted. The mansion that you venture through the entire time is also designed well, an endless hedge maze; objects and rooms are rarely repeated, nor do they become too familiar.
Layers of Fear brings forth a unique, frightening experience. Even the arguably occasional clichéd plot points come across as genuine. Though the story isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it leaves a good amount left up to the player’s imagination, which in this case is fitting. Letting the player fill in the story’s gaps is a common trait true to the best of horror stories. The ending especially holds a satisfying twist that will ultimately tickle your brain. Though the game lacks enthralling gameplay features, its story and setting makes up for the lost ground. There are times when the psychedelic elements go somewhat far and you are left disoriented. Nonetheless, if you appreciate horror or are just looking for an interesting scare, Layers of Fear will deliver what it promises.
Publisher: Aspyr | Developer: Bloober Team SA | Genre: First-Person Adventure, Horror | Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC | ESRB: M 17+ | Release Date: February 16, 2016 & Steam Early Access | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Gamepad/Controller
Layers of Fear was played on PC and was provided by the developer.