Layers of Fear
Aspys / Bloober Team
Over the years, horror as a genre has branched off quite a bit. While the genre wasn’t exactly a stranger to symbolism or subtext, time has lent itself to certain horror offerings exercising the cerebral and dramatic. Video games have been doing this for some time now thanks to certain developers working to deepen the artform that video games have started to be recognized as. Games like Silent Hill and Rule of Rose have taken a whole mythos and forums full of discussion to dissect- and it’s all been amazing to watch unfold as a horror fan.
Layers of Fear is an indie effort that attempts to marry the horror genre with drama and surrealism. While a few games have done this, I had heard a lot about Layers of Fear from my friends- and yet had heard very little about it aside from it would be right up my alley and that I needed to try it. Given my extensive Steam library, I thought it would be a while before I got the chance to play it. In a stroke of generosity, a friend of mine gifted me a copy so I could finally check out the experience.
That was about a year or so ago.
Well, now it’s the season and in between replays of Clock Tower and Friday the 13th, I’m making it my goal to get to some of the creepier titles I haven’t had the chance to break into yet. First up on my list ended up being this one since I was in the mood for the kind of game I had at least thought it was. Allow me to detail for all of you the experience I had after a year of anticipation for this game and all it had to offer.
An artist arrives at home, weary and alone as he wanders the foyer of a Victorian manor. A brief walk around reveals a few hints of his home life- his wife is sleeping and wishes to not be disturbed and communication between the two seems to be stilted, involving leaving notes for one another to find and respond to throughout the house. Shortly after his arrival, however, he ventures to his studio to create his “masterpiece”. When he positions himself before canvas and removes the cloth covering it, it is revealed to be stark white, a blank space where beautiful art is meant to exist.
What unravels in the next few hours is a tale that echoes Gothic horror in its dark tones and tragic circumstances. As the artist works through memories regarding his interactions with his wife and daughter, he mentally walks through hallways of his home that twist and darken the further he dives into creating his masterpiece. At times, it’s difficult to tell what is real and what may be fabricated, both in front of him and in his perception. By searching through the environments around him, he can piece together exactly what he needs to so that he can finally finish his masterpiece.
Layers of Fear works very much like other games of the genre do. Navigating the environment, you can search through drawers, cabinets, and plenty of other places to find items that will help you progress. This can involve things as simple as keys to open doors to items that will incite memories to other less palatable objects. The number of places that can be investigated is astounding, and it is worthwhile to search every one as pieces that flesh out certain parts of the backing narrative are seemingly hidden at random throughout. Most cabinets, drawers, and doors are opened by pressing and holding a button and using your mouse or controller to pull it or push it.
Aside from that, though, there isn’t much more to be discussed as far as the mechanics of the game are concerned. You can run by using holding down the appropriate button while you move, and while you’re examining items, you can use another button to look over the item in more detail. The game doesn’t thrive on complicated controls so much as it does the maneuvering through a complicated environment.
As horror games are wont to do, Layers of Fear plays a lot with the perception of the player where sometimes, it makes you question what you can actually interact with and what the room you’re in actually consists of in its construction. In this, keen eyes and ears are more important than the non-existent combat that this genre thrives on. You may walk down a hallway only to reach a locked door and upon turning around, you’re suddenly in a smaller area that looks nothing like what you had just traveled through. Everything else that comes with a horror game is at play here, as well, including the jump scares and creepy noises and subjects you’ve come to know from playing any games meant to terrify and creep you out.
The Good, The Bad, And…
The name of the game in Layers of Fear is disorientation and playing off of the fear that you never know what you’re running into or if something you looked at one minute will be there the next. In this, Layers feels like a masterclass at times. There were more than a handful of moments that I would turn to see another part of my environment only to realize that it wasn’t what I was expecting. Some of the changes are subtle or just in the corner of your eye so even if they existed the moment you walked into the room, you may not recognize them until the angle is just right. These types of scares are a personal favorite so if you’re like me in this, you’ll enjoy the experience here.
In all of this, the game also capitalizes on the ‘unreliable narrator’ to great success. While the story doesn’t fall too far from the beaten path we’ve seen, it’s the protagonist and his view of the world and what happened in the past that is the real draw. Throughout the game, you’ll get the impression that your character may be a bit unhinged. There are also times, though, where things make sense and you may begin to question what happened and what his motivations have been in the past and are now. The key to this is that you never truly get the concrete influence of another character- it’s just you and the protagonist the entire way through regarding the narrative. This was a solid choice on the developer’s part as along with the ever-changing environment, you really begin to question the character you’re playing as.
Where the game has a minute failure is that the story has been done before. Sure, there are a few shock factors thrown in for good measure, but the game feels like a tired walk through the same kind of story we’ve seen from a number of other horror games. Don’t mistake this for a ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ comment. A well-executed story is still worth experiencing, whether you’ve seen the same formula before or not. I just feel that if you are going into this looking for a brand new experience from start to finish, you aren’t going to find a novel tale here.
Horror sound design is a different beast than most. Where other games have to do a lot with melodies and compositions, horror tends toward the need for silence in the right spots and particular noises to be audibly crisp and appropriate. This may seem kind of obvious, but it is really easy for horror to fall into an ‘average’ category as a result just by hitting the bare minimum for atmosphere. Layers of Fear goes a bit beyond that in its sound design, not by innovation but by quality. Every sound from the music to the distortions and everything else in between lends to the feeling that this landscape is ethereal and isolating. All of it is more than adequate in helping push the atmosphere of the game forward.
In the development notes on Layers, Bloober Team is quoted as having aspired toward the game looking like the player had stepped into a classical painting. With its dark and Gothic-inspired palette and style, the team did exactly what they had set out to do. Nearly every angle feels straight out of an oil portrait and in what feels like a fitting respect, the best part of the game is what a feast for the eyes it is. Usually, games with a lot of earthen and muted tones don’t impress me. I couldn’t get enough of what I was seeing- including many of the jarring touches that it took some time to perceive.
In its final presentation, Layers of Fear is an above average offering of horror and storytelling as a whole. It lacks a bit in narrative innovation, but if you’re looking for creative design choices with a beautiful shell, this is a great game for you. As a horror fan, I enjoyed my time with the game and found myself questioning a few of the story elements that came up since even if the story itself isn’t riveting, the way it’s approached is intriguing. Did it live up to all of the hype I had been given, though?
This is probably one of the best horror games to come out in recent years as it gives a sincere effort to mess with the player in a number of ways and it takes itself just seriously enough. In two sittings and a grand total of about four or five hours, I felt the need to continue on to the end to see what else would be thrown at me. Given that the game evens out as less than half of a new game at retail and it has a few different endings, it should be considered a welcome addition to any horror fan’s collection.