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Review

Layers of Fear Review – A Picture is Worth a 1,000 Scares

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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.

Layers of Fear Canvas

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 Elevator

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.

[taq_review]

Benjamin writes for Newegg and OnlySP, providing both PC hardware and gaming reviews. He owns an electronic repair business, is a PC modding enthusiast and constantly invents imaginative excuses to upgrade his rig.

Review

American Fugitive Review — A Grand Tale of Theft and Auto

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American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 1

The original Grand Theft Auto rocked the virtual world with its violent gameplay from a birds-eye view perspective back in 1997. Once the series moved to a third-person, 3D perspective with Grand Theft Auto III, few gamers looked back and few developers attempted to replicate the original style. More than 20 years later, Fallen Tree Games has become of those few with American Fugitive.

Players control Will Riley, a man convicted for a crime he did not commit and filled with the desire for revenge. Once he has escaped from prison, Will must find old friends—and meet some new ones—to run errands and discover the person who killed his father.

The game is played from a top-down perspective in a 3D open world. More reminiscent of Chinatown Wars than the original Grand Theft Auto, the camera adds a level of complexity to American Fugitive, as players often will not see what lies beyond the edges of the screen. While a behind-the-character perspective would, at times, not go amiss, players will eventually grow to familiarise themselves with the camera, respecting the callback to classic open world titles.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 2

The open world itself is also reminiscent of classic titles, with simplified designs regularly complimented by the detailed art style. The game’s animated, cartoon design scheme is fitting of its fast-paced action gameplay, always managing to keep the player on their toes and keen to discover more. Technically, the game plays almost flawlessly, with no significant performance issues to disrupt the player while they explore the map.

Players can explore the rural open world of Redrock County on foot or in a vehicle. The vehicular gameplay may take some time for players to familiarise themselves with, with some overly slippery mechanics leading to some unfortunate collisions, though fitting to the game’s tone. Thankfully, most environments in the game are destructible, so sliding off the road—if the player follows the road to begin with—does not often lead to disaster.

Despite beginning the game as a seemingly innocent man, Will doubles down on his criminal actions once he escapes from prison. Akin to Grand Theft Auto, the player can hijack cars, kill civilians, and attract the attention of police. Most residential buildings in the game can be robbed by the player, often leading to tense confrontations with the homeowners or police, so players must continue at their own risk.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 3

The ‘wanted’ system in the game works similarly to Grand Theft Auto games, with players accumulating up to five stars depending on their behaviour. The stars often accumulate a little too quickly, however, with additional stars regularly added simply for evading police. Oftentimes, the player may possess a full wanted level—complete with large police vans and circling helicopters—within a minute of committing a minor offense. While this over-the-top gameplay design is fitting to the pace of the game, it may lead to frustrations within the main story missions by bringing the player’s progress to a halt.

The missions are also reminiscent of those in Grand Theft Auto, tasking the player with a wide variety of tasks to keep them busy while the story evolves. While many of these missions may seem disconnected to the main narrative structure, they are unique and regularly keep the player entertained, ranging from simple fetch quests and car robberies to full-scale shootouts. The game’s fast-paced gameplay and lack of loading screens also make the poorly-placed checkpoints bearable, especially when the beginning of missions require the player to drive to a certain location.

American Fugitive‘s storyline is simple in design but entertaining enough to keep the player engaged. The game’s ‘cutscenes’ exist in the form of text atop character designs; while some simple voice acting would elevate these scenes with more dramatic tension, they are short enough to maintain the player’s attention and continue the missions at a fast pace. Players will find themselves surprisingly engrossed in the story, wanting to see it through to its full conclusion.

American Fugitive gameplay screenshot 4

Accompanying the fast-paced gameplay and narrative is the game’s music. From slow, explorative themes to fast-paced tracks, American Fugitive‘s original score is reminiscent of some of the best soundtracks across different media—from television’s True Detective to video gaming’s Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us. Each song accompanies the gameplay nicely, ramping up and down as the player makes the appropriate actions, and, along with the expert sound design, add the auditory sprinkles atop a visual and narrative treat.

American Fugitive, simply put, is fun. Fallen Tree Games has added its own unique twist to a classic gameplay formula, and utilised a simple but engaging narrative and a beautiful original score to maintain the player’s interest until the very end. Despite a few minor flaws in gameplay, the game stands strong against its competition. Players looking for a fast, fun, and mature sandbox game should not miss American Fugitive.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.

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