Horror games are my jam – knowing that at any moment my fresh clean undergarments could be soiled is one of biggest thrills gaming holds for me. The horror genre has made a resurgence of sorts in recent times and you can be damn sure that any decent looking horror title is well and truly on my radar. One of those titles was Layers of Fear, a psychedelic first-person horror (FPH) in the same vein as the cult-hit PT. Layers of Fear aims to wrestle your subconscious into submission by employing some of horror’s classic traits such as foreboding atmosphere and jump scares. Unfortunately for horror fanatics, the game’s predictable and uninspired delivery of its scares sadly leads to a largely tedious and unremarkable experience.
What lurks in the shadows?
Layers of Fear puts you inside the mind of a painter who is one Monte Carlo short of a full packet of Arnott’s Classic Assorted. He’s desperately trying to find the right inspiration to complete his final masterpiece – his magnum opus. The game is centred around this premise and in order to complete your final piece of art you need to navigate your way through the painter’s mansion, delving into his psychosis to face his inner demons and accept some hard truths.
As soon as you begin your playthrough you can tell that the developers (Bloober Team) have nailed the visual atmosphere of the game. This is no tawdry affair either – in fact it’s up there with one of the best looking horror atmospheres I’ve seen. The game is set in the painter’s mansion, which resembles a property built in the nineteenth century. The walls are lined with vintage art – some more prized than others, but they all stand out in their own unique way. Upon my commencement of the game I spent several minutes admiring the mansion’s surroundings while the chilling notes of the game’s soundtrack played in the background. The deeper inside the cerebral labyrinth you go the more disturbed and enthralling the environments become. Words of delusion are painted across the walls, shifting environments play with your senses and there are more broken bottles of alcohol lying around than a Geordie Shore house party. Couple these visuals with the cracking of thunder and the lashing of rain against the windows outside and you have yourself an ideal horror setting. The sound design is for the most part, excellent. However the one shortcoming with the atmosphere is that the music doesn’t play often enough. There are long periods of walking the corridors with nothing more than your thoughts and the wild weather outside to accompany you.
Someone’s had a spill
Ain’t no baby sleeping in here
The gameplay is very similar to most FPH games that render you defenceless: approach every corner and doorway with caution and be ready at all times. As you scout the mansion’s hallways and rooms in search of your next source of inspiration, you’ll be able to inspect various items that are littered throughout these dwellings. Most of these items such as letters and special trinkets give you an insight into the events that befell the artista before his sanity began to wither. Some of these insights are voice overs and you’ll wish they weren’t because the voice-acting is truly poor. Thankfully the backstory is rather intriguing, however it’s a shame that to get the full picture you need to ensure that you read all the letters and notes and inspect all the trinkets. The controls in the game are very simple – the analogue sticks move your character and adjust the camera angle, one button inspects items and another lets you jog.
A good horror game will have you on the precipice of cacking your dacks at many stages during the experience. Whether it is because the jump scares got you good or the music combined with the backdrop lured you into a false sense of security, good horror games will have you immersed in the experience. Sadly, this isn’t the case with Layers of Fear and instead of feeling my heart beating with trepidation, I was left frustrated and yearning for a far more frightening experience. Firstly, the jump scare moments were all predictable – you enter a room, the lights go out and then it happens. I think there was only one moment where I genuinely jumped (okay, so they weren’t all predictable). This was such a letdown because at rare moments, the soundscape (e.g. a crying female child) promised something intriguing, only to have the same scene we’ve seen a million times before play out. Secondly, the constantly changing environment was an effective feature the first dozen times it happened (going from the kitchen into a hallway with random inscriptions on the walls with flickering lights), but the next two dozen after that made this mechanic tedious. This design choice also hinders exploration as quite often doors will open to new areas and you will not be able to backtrack. So if you miss an inspectable item or wanted to check what was behind another door then too bad. There is a veritable cornucopia of doors to open too, some lead to nothing of interest, other to new areas, but there’s no real way of knowing and once you’ve a gone to a new area there is no going back.
Not all children are harmless
Stairway to more door (get it..)
Door roulette wasn’t the only feature that made exploration unappealing. The game’s save system (or lack thereof) was another reason to just concentrate on the task at hand. The only time your progress saves is when you apply another ‘layer’ to your awaiting canvas. There were no checkpoints and no manual save options, and even though the game isn’t that long (took me between 4-5 hours to complete) there were moments that I rushed to complete purely to get the next save point. The last disappointing gameplay aspect was the lack of challenge when the game required you to do more than just inspect an item. These supposed puzzle moments serve no real purpose other than to frustrate the player as they try to locate the random object that will allow them to progress, and simply act to lengthen the campaign. For example, at one stage in the game you have to find numerous checkers pieces scattered across a room to open the right number of doors to find your way out. The thing is, checkers pieces have no relevance to the scenario our painter finds himself in. The cerebral act of puzzling can absorb the player into a game’s experience, but Layers of Fear’s arbitrary puzzles feel like a wasted opportunity to have the player actually have some sort of meaningful interactivity with the world.
Sadly, Layers of Fear fails to capitalise on its outstanding atmosphere. The game world gives us a glimpse of its potential and the backstory is one of great intrigue, but the tedious and cliché-ridden gameplay ensures that the end result is a highly frustrating and disappointing experience.
Reviewed on Xbox One