The prison of the mind is like no other. Only you can let yourself out, and only you can find the door. But first you have to know you're in a prison, and you have to want to escape.
Polish developer Bloober Team's Layers of Fear puts you in the shoes of a desperate, confused artist working to create a masterpiece, something he thinks will save himself, change his life, and fix everything. As you wander around the ruins of his shattered life, learning about what he's been through, and importantly what he's done and said, you enter his twisted mind and get trapped with him, as him, in that prison.
Layers of Fear is wrapped up in a lot of recent video game history, and it's difficult to unravel it from those connections and look at it independently. Comparisons to Gone Home, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and P.T. are all inevitable. Fans of those titles will certainly look at Layers of Fear in a different light than those coming to it entirely anew.
First person horror games weren't really a thing until just a few years ago. By this point, they're a well-trodden genre filled with classics and derivatives, games hard to remember and games unforgettable.
Classical Art, Twisted
Despite the winding path Layers of Fear's protagonist takes, it doesn't often venture off that path, though that's not necessarily a bad thing all the time.
Where Layers of Fear excels, without question, is in the visuals. Both in the way it looks from moment to moment and with some of the tricks it plays.
Layers of Fear is very much gothic horror, and you spend the whole game wandering a Victorian-esque home somewhere near the turn of the century. The game is built in the Unity engine, the more easily accessible alternative to the much more popular Unreal Engine, but it doesn't feel like the look and feel of the game have been shortchanged because of that decision.
The house, even in its state closest to reality, is filled with grotesque paintings. They're not ultra-detailed nightmare fuel from historical artists like Hieronymus Bosch, but they're certainly discomforting, and this focus on art pervades the game. You're in the shoes of a painter, constantly surrounded by artwork that makes you want to look away.
The oil in these paintings starts to take over the world around you as you lose your grip on sanity, making for many of the game's best set pieces. One room has you trying to get a record to play at the correct speed, manipulating the phonograph's different controls. As you do, the room and the phonograph itself melt like oil paints, and mutate when the music plays out of key and out of speed, but as you reach the correct setting things start to reveal reality.
You'll also wander down hallways lined with oozing, glistening oil, or see what used to look like an inhabited room, now covered in the stuff. The sequences that engage these effects are memorable and help the game stand out.
Boo! Did I scare you?
Much of the trip through the setting, though, feels sort of like an ultra-high-end haunted house. It's linear, and if there are choices to be made, it's unclear where they are or what effects they have because so much else in the game is so linear. You'll walk through a door to find an empty wall. You'll turn around and the door is gone. Swivel back around and something else has changed.
Neat tricks like these, combined with some extremely effective jump scares, make for a fun experience. Unfortunately, they also leave very little reason to return to the game.
Not every game needs to offer replay value, certainly, and not even short games need to. Some of my favorite short games have been single-play titles, and worth every moment I spent with them. But Layers of Fear makes promises throughout, though, of reasons to go back. There are some spooky collectibles, like photos with faces scratched out, drawings probably drawn by an insane guy. The ending is even suggestive of the whole process being an endless loop, and that each loop is another one of the aforementioned layers.
Upon finishing the game, however, I wasn't left feeling like I'd be going back for any reason other than to pick up more spooky treasures. The game never suggests that there's more to learn or see by going back, other than that of course you'd go back again because that's what an insane person would do, and you're an insane painter. That's the problem with insanity as a story element: it's always more interesting from the outside – it's easier to convince me that someone else is insane than to make me believe it about myself.
Drawers, Doors, and Tropes
The actual act of wandering the house is the first place the experience starts to fall apart, though. Like Amnesia before it, this is a drawer-and-door game. You'll end up going through every cabinet and drawer trying to find a newspaper clipping, handwritten note, or something else to either get out of the room you're stuck in or to just complete collectibles. It becomes tedious pretty early on.
Meanwhile, the game is throwing every jump scare at you that it can think of. Some of them are really effective. I jumped and made noises more than a few times during my playthrough. But a lot of them feel more like something out of a Tool video from the 1990s (warning, explicit lyrics). Kids, ask your parents about Tool.
Twitching dolls litter scenes in inappropriate places, imagery of the handicapped – wheelchairs, etc – is meant to make the house feel a bit more like an insane asylum despite not really adding anything to the story (even if it does tie in just fine). Other times, things just slam open or shut or whatever else.
There are some non-jump scares, too, though I'm hesitant to spoil them for those that move ahead with the game, as they're some of the more memorable moments provided by Layers of Fear.
There's definitely neat stuff to find within Layers of Fear, but so much of it is done more effectively by its predecessors. Bloober Team did a good job of bringing things together and making a stunning Unity title, and that alone is worth commendation, but it doesn't make for a better game.
What Layers of Fear makes me want, ultimately, is to see what Bloober Team could be capable of with a better story and less beaten-in subject matter.
With its short playtime – just about 3 hours for my playthough – It's worth checking out on a Steam sale, but, in general you'll want to hang back on this one.
Disclaimer: We received a copy of Layers of Fear for Steam/PC from the publisher. We completed the story before writing this review.
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