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Layers Of Fear Review

Bloober Team’s reverse Dorian Grey belongs in an attic

Horror is hard. Between audience subjectivity, artist intent, and genre pitfalls and saturation, nailing down something that genuinely scares people is impossibly difficult. That doesn’t mean Layers of Fear is good though. A remastered collection of Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear (2018), Layers of Fear 2, DLC stories, and new connective tissue content, Layers of Fear is the definitive way to play the stories that propelled this team into mainstream success. It’s also a stark reminder of how confusing that success is; a gorgeous rendered monument to unfulfilled potential and lazy writing, Layers of Fear is more of a grim portent.

Ostensibly a series of mind-bending 3D spaces that replicate a descent into “madness”, the Layers of Fear games are built on a very specific and fundamentally flawed bedrock. In both titles you play as a tortured artist driven to some non-descript form of mental instability by dramatically varying degrees of vaguely sympathetic trigger points. This mind fracturing manifests in several ways but most consistently in the physical warping of the world around you, the haunting and dangerous phantoms of your guilt, and the loud bangs accompanying some inane piece of furniture toppling over for no good reason.

Layers of Fear’s environments are often beautiful but overdesigned 

Bloober Team’s command over these spaces is something to admire, in short bursts. While the concept of a haunted house is as old as time, the use of digital spaces and player interaction to twist hallways and rooms into impossible shapes is, at a baseline, fun. You enter a room, it looks a certain way, you turn around and it looks another. Reality is broken, its rules abandoned, and you’re unmoored. At times this is tremendous – a character is experiencing a suffocating sense of claustrophobia so the walls of a small room continue to slowly but surely push in on you as you pace it looking for an exit. A simple trick turned magical by a final reality break that forces the player’s camera perspective into unnatural angles before snapping back to normalcy.

These moments though, the potential power of them to stay with you is clumsily and greedily robbed as Bloober Team deploys similar tricks ad nauseum. If reality is this consistently broken, the unnatural becomes natural, and the lack of rules becomes the rule. The house is no longer haunted, it just smells of stale mould. First-person exploration and some very lax puzzle work (find the hidden code, find the key, find a reason to keep playing) make up the bulk of your time. The collection also includes a torch mechanic akin to Alan Wake; in both games, the beam of light from the handheld unit can be focused to stun foes and manipulate the environment to middling effect. So you start pushing on walls and picture frames and doors without hesitation, comfortable in the knowledge that a certain trigger point in almost every room will adjust what exists outside of your field of view so you can continue the story.

Though even that motivation is stymied by writing that is both dryly predictable and occasionally distasteful. Through a series of scribbled notes (some of which are read aloud, others not, others still half-and-half for reasons beyond my understanding) and tonally bizarre voiceovers, Layers of Fear will spin its tales of troubled men and the Women around them. The first game remains utterly unlikeable for its depiction of mental illness and domestic abuse, a shock value freefall of insensitive and harmful tropes. The second at least deploys a far more sympathetic protagonist but still fails to properly grapple with its representation of certain conditions. While the additional content features a truly baffling “true” ending for one story and a meandering series coda in another.

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The update to Unreal Engine 5 is a beautiful coat of paint for the series

Layers of Fear repaints the series in Unreal Engine 5, an undeniably stunning facelift that forefronts the best of these games through the usual suspects of visual enhancements. The 4K, HDR, and ray-tracing work wonders for these environments, easily the game’s best shot at the genre. While still stumbling into some uninspiring cliches and baffling “homages”, the art direction remains consistently enjoyable throughout and serves well to bolster the occasionally impressive cinematic work. This is in turn helped by the game’s outstanding sound design, with every creak of the house or gentle thud in the next room breaking the silence in expertly crafted surround sound.

These flairs are illusions to scares rather than anything outright terrifying though, the game’s primary intention seemingly more to startle rather than sincerely unnerve. A loud noise and a sudden movement may shock you for a moment but in the horror market these are the cheapest of possible exchanges between audience and art. I would often find myself hesitant to open a door not because I was afraid of the world but because I just didn’t feel like having something smack me in the ear again. Layers of Shock maybe, but much like the game’s overuse of shifting play spaces, even its jump scares become little more than soft bumps in the night.

Final Thoughts

The unforgivable shortcomings in Layers of Fear are a shame, because the core tools that the game is built with could be used to forge something pretty alright. The series’ issues with mental health and representation are foundational and in dire need of more evaluation than additional DLC can provide, but there’s a genuinely interesting examination of player and space here that is crying out for a better framing. Layers of Fear has all the pieces, but Bloober Team seem content to toss those bricks around an empty block instead of building something of value.

Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher

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Layers Of Fear Review
Layers and layers of something
Layers of Fear is an admirable remaster that uses the fresh coat of paint to bring the series’ art direction up to modern standards but the bones of the experience remain fractured. Tedious and exhausting gameplay loops and tasteless writing make even this package a nice frame on an ugly painting.
The Good
Beautiful use of Unreal Engine 5
Great sound design
Some inventive use of play spaces
The Bad
Overuse of the game's best ideas makes them dull
Unengaging puzzles and core loop
Tropey and tasteless writing
Fails to scare
4.5
BUMMER
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  • Bloober Team, Anshar Studios S.A.
  • Bloober Team
  • PS5 / PS4 / Xbox X|S / Xbox One / Switch / PC
  • June 15, 2023

Layers Of Fear Review
Layers and layers of something
Layers of Fear is an admirable remaster that uses the fresh coat of paint to bring the series’ art direction up to modern standards but the bones of the experience remain fractured. Tedious and exhausting gameplay loops and tasteless writing make even this package a nice frame on an ugly painting.
The Good
Beautiful use of Unreal Engine 5
Great sound design
Some inventive use of play spaces
The Bad
Overuse of the game’s best ideas makes them dull
Unengaging puzzles and core loop
Tropey and tasteless writing
Fails to scare
4.5
BUMMER
Written By James Wood

One part pretentious academic and one part goofy dickhead, James is often found defending strange games and frowning at the popular ones, but he's happy to play just about everything in between. An unbridled love for FromSoftware's pantheon, a keen eye for vibes first experiences, and an insistence on the Oxford comma have marked his time in the industry.

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