Ever since Layers of Fear was released several months ago, I really dreaded playing it. Not because of some founded bias against its gameplay or stated weaknesses gathered from reviews, but because I am one, huge, wimp. Call me crazy, but I just can’t handle psychological horror or it’s heavily accompanied jump-scare tactics. Give me a dagger or a pipe and I can handle hordes of zombies, demons, or hell spawn, no questions asked. Make me open a door under inclement lighting and I’ll nope myself out of there so fast your head will spin. To make things worse, LoF utilizes “psychedelic horror,” a feature it prides itself on, known to change the look of the surroundings with the turn of a camera. Great. From the guy that made his roommate play P.T. so that he could watch behind covers, this review marks the beginning of my journey to gain nerves of steel and a mastery of mind over matter.
An Untrustworthy Mind
It might be a little coincidental that I mentioned my aim to attain “mind over matter,” because apparently, it seems like the protagonist could also use the same advice, figuratively speaking. Taking control of a painter whose sole desire is to finish painting a true Masterpiece of Fear, his magnum opus, you must traverse the ever changing Victorian household and collect the required tools of the trade. The story unfolds through exploration, and the amount of effort you put into uncovering your surroundings dictates how much information about the painter’s dark and tragic past you will be rewarded with, along with which ending (of 3) you will receive.
The Art of Fear
Distortions of the camera and demented, yet artistic, scenery changes in real-time help create a sense of emotional imbalance in tune with that of the protagonist. As his mind seemingly deteriorates, so will his environment. This instability also provides a feeling that you are a part of a horror film, cliches and all. Iconic lighting flickers and hallway/elevator imagery align themselves to some very common horror tropes, yet, I never failed to get startled either way. Scripted events are often triggered with specific camera angles, so you will often find yourself dreading the look-around; however, I find moments like these really immersive. An optional in-game head-bob (due to a prosthetic leg) and smooth camera movement also helps.
Layers of Fear owes much of its impactful moments and scare tactics to the amazing sound effects and musical composition. If it wasn’t for the light creaking of the floorboards to the adrenaline-inducing piano bursts, none of the game’s horror aspects would have been nearly as satisfying to recover from. Of course, this is to be expected from any half-decent horror game, but LoF takes it one step further by utilizing stereophonic sound (easily noticeable when using headphones). An example of this is a ringing phone on the right side balcony. As you try to walk away from the sound, around a corner hall, you can notice the sound of the ringing phone move past and around you. This multi-directional audible perspective enhances the already immersive situation.
Even after opening door after door, and then some more, LoF never managed to fail in finding a new and creative way to scare the living **** out of me. Bloober Team took an immense amount of care in meticulously crafting unique rooms, situations, and scripted events to make it extremely difficult to let my guard down. Endless loops (P.T. style), dead-ends, and surreal room designs coupled with scare tactics in the form of turn-back surprises and psychedelic hallucinations made sure that my resting heart rate never dipped below 110 bpm. You’d think that I would eventually become desensitized to opening doors after a while. You would also be very wrong.
Unfortunately, LoF’s take on a walking simulator holds it back from even greater glory in my eyes. No matter how scared or petrified I was from the oncoming unknown, I knew deep down that this was not a survival game. The further along I progressed, the more I realized that nothing could hurt me. In fact, I even attempted to be extremely reckless at one point and run straight into an apparition, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing ever did. If I ever doubted that being so careless would lead to my demise, or at least the restriction of choice, or even a plot device disguised as a severe consequence, I would have given these hallucinations more credibility. A couple running, escape, or hiding sequences here and there from the protagonist’s own paranoia would have done the trick. Gameplay-wise, this could have been implemented in the form of QTEs, health/stamina management, or timed challenges. Imagine trying to solve a puzzle in order to unlock a door as a ghost drifts its phantasmal butt your way. It doesn’t even have to kill you if it reaches you. It could just sit there and stare creepily, or shriek in your ear. It’s a shame that none of these mechanics were incorporated.
I would have also loved to have been able to see different environments in LoF. As far as haunted Victorian houses go, Layers of Fear is at the pinnacle of scary. But if the POV character is going crazy anyways, the developers have free artistic reign to put the player in any sort of situation imaginable. Why not throw in some forestry scenes. Anything with color so that the absence of it would be more pronounced. It’s always drab walls, sometimes with ichor or paint strewn everywhere, and doors. Broken doors, clean doors, dirty doors, you name it. The game is all about doors. It’s possible that the developers want to ingrain a subconscious dread of the unknown on the other side. I suppose that’s what maintains the fear factor throughout the game, but Bloober Team could have also thrown in a warp hole in a drawer too to mix things up. Something to punish the OCD mentality and make it more thrilling. The final chapter managed to exhibit a grand scale of artistic imagination though, but I definitely would have liked to see that in earlier chapters too.
Now I’m not entirely sure why I’m thinking of improving the scare tactics, as if I want Layers of Fear to be even more terrifying than it already is. Maybe it’s because I really found the audio-visual design to be of such high caliber that it deserves all of the polish it can get. If not that, it could be the fact that Layers of Fear has steeled my flimsy nerves and made me a horror fanatic. I don’t know. All I can say is that LoF opened my eyes to an underappreciated genre, and I will forever be grateful for the quality experience it gave me as I lament the final moments of the game. Fortunately, LoF’s has multiple endings which are all vastly different. As I go through my various re-runs, I now understand how hard it is to creatively scare and engage an audience for an extended period of time, and I hope that other psychological horror games will take LoF as a standard for comparison. This makes it very easy for me to recommend Layers of Fear to any fan of horror games or people looking for a quality scare.