The opening section of Layers of Fear – the latest game from the otherwise unremarkable Bloober Team – scared the absolute hell out of me. It was tense and atmospheric, and every door threatened to open into some bizarre horror or fascinating insight into the story. Unfortunately, those first thirty or so minutes were by far the highlight of my three and a half hour play through.
Layers of Fear is a first-person horror game, in which the player takes the role of a painter who’s seemingly being driven mad by his desire to finish his masterpiece. There’s more to the story, which is discovered through diaries and items in the house, as well as in the environment itself. The story managed to hold my interest even when the rest of the game didn’t, and I also quite enjoyed the ending. The story isn’t overly complex, and even players who don’t explore much will be able to uncover most of the truth, though extra tidbits are hidden around the game for those that want to uncover the entire story.
The game opens with the main character returning home to his mansion. To get this out of the way, the game is beautiful from beginning to end. The mansion is well detailed, revealing clues about the history of both the characters and the house itself without dipping into unbelievable or unrealistic design choices (at least initially). Special mention should be given to the paintings, which range from beautiful to unsettling to mind-numbingly cliché, but all manage to look fantastic.
There’s also a real sense of weight to movement. The main character has a prosthetic leg and limps with every other step, tilting the camera just enough to make you feel like you’re limping without being annoying or inducing motion sickness. Doors and drawers are opened by holding down a button (R2 on the PS4) and pulling on the right-stick. This does lend a cool feeling of weight, similar to the walking, but is sometimes annoying. I found a couple of instances where I was trying to read a document in a drawer and kept accidentally grabbing the drawer itself, or I’d pull back on a door and then swing my entire body around because I hadn’t let go of the stick.
The music, though sparse, is also phenomenal. Haunting piano numbers follow you through your exploration of the mansion and manage to drum the atmosphere up to eleven without becoming overbearing. The biggest scare came from when I approached a door and the music suddenly cut out just before I opened it, filling me with dread.
Unfortunately, that was where the horror ended. After your initial outing – in which you can freely explore many rooms of the mansion and start building an understanding of the narrative – the horror drops entirely.
After that opening sequence, Layers of Fear devolves into a boring walk through what is essentially a hallway filled with every ridiculous horror trope you can imagine. There’s insane writing on the walls, evil dolls, too many eyeballs and spooky twitching ghosts.
You know that trick that games use where you walk up to a door only to discover it’s locked, but then turn around and realise the room behind you has changed into something else entirely? I didn’t count the exact number, but that trick is used every few seconds. It’s incredible that the designers didn’t realise how predictable and boring this becomes. I ended up solving most rooms by simply spinning on the spot until the next door had appeared.
There are a spattering of puzzles scattered about, though I’m reluctant to use the word “puzzles”. This paragraph details the first instance, so feel free to skip it if you want to check it out for yourself. Early in the game, you find a small box with a three-digit combination lock. Nearby, I found a piece of paper that mentioned your character’s anniversary party on the 9th of June, at 2:00 PM. As such, I assumed the combination was 962 (or possibly 692). It turns out that the real solution was revealed by lighting candles nearby, which caused the number to materialise on the wall. The puzzles never get more complicated or interesting than that, with the worst offender being a section in which you have to hunt for small checker pieces in a dark room. While not too difficult or time consuming, it really didn’t add anything worthwhile to the game – something all of the puzzles have in common.
This is even more unfortunate when you consider that this is all the gameplay Layers of Fear really has to offer. The rest of the game is spent walking down linear hallways while the game throws far too many jump scares at you. As mentioned, it’s possible to find notes and items hidden under and around furniture, which serve to shed a little more light on the story and are generally a well-written and interesting to read, but it simply isn’t enough to alleviate the boredom.
The real deal breaker for me – and here’s another spoiler warning, because this paragraph may ruin the horror aspect before you even start playing – is that the game contains no fail state, at least that I experienced in my play through. There’s no health and no combat, which is fine, but there aren’t even enemies or fatal traps. There’s nothing to fear but the next jump scare, which almost all fall flat anyway.
It’s hard to recommend buying the game, which is sad when the art, music, sound design and story are all solid. I genuinely feel as though you’d get the same experience by simply watching a play through online. The gameplay simply isn’t there, and I found myself rolling my eyes when the game “spookily” changed the environment behind me for the umpteenth time.
I’d be remiss to finish the review without mentioning the scariest part of the game – the performance. Bear in mind that I was playing a downloaded copy of the game on PS4 and that performance may change on different machines – especially PCs – but there were serious drops in frame rates all throughout. Generally speaking these frame drops weren’t too bad, but in certain areas or during some environmental effects the frame rate would more than halve, making it hard to even play until the game settled down.
Overall, Layers of Fear is a game with an interesting premise and a seemingly talented team that managed to waste a lot of its potential. If this is your first horror game, you may find some genuine scares – if you’re even a casual player, you’ve seen everything this game has to offer executed more skilfully elsewhere. While it has redeeming features, none of them manage to make up for the fact that you’ll spend almost all of your time simply walking forward until the next piece of narrative is revealed.