- Developer/Publisher: Bloober Team SA / Aspyr
- Platform: PC (Steam), PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- PS4 version tested. Review code provided by the publisher.
Artists are fragile beings. A creative block is enough to make everything lose any meaning for them, with the search of the way out of said block becoming the only thing that matters. Thankfully, this isn’t the case for most, but the protagonist of Layers of Fear did indeed go down this path. Morality melts like snow, bonds are crushed and shattered, everything becomes a tool to finally see the end of a creative struggle. To finally finish the painting of a lifetime.
Layers of Fear is a first person horror game where players explore a huge manor in the attempt of understanding what happened to the main character and his family, and to complete what might be considered as his magnum opus. The story doesn’t really break any new ground, but it’s made quite engaging the way it’s told. During the course of the game, players will have to piece together memories from the past, eerie messages scribbled on the manor’s walls and furniture, documents and more. Focusing on just some of these elements, however, is not enough to fully grasp the story of Layers of Fear. There’s plenty of symbolism in the narration and many details may be lost if you don’t pay attention to the surroundings, to some apparently unrelated items, to the many pictures found in the manor or to some of the twisted visions experienced during the course of the game. Layers of Fear has a strong tie with art (painting, specifically) which is underlined by this unique storytelling method: it’s as if the players have to paint a picture of the story themselves with the tools provided by the game. Something may be interpreted wrong during the process, but it’s the journey all that truly matters. And what a journey it is.
As a horror game, Layers of Fear is literally stacked with moments that will unnerve and scare players, making them fear opening the next door, or merely operating the mechanisms in front of them. And there’s really no respite until the end, as no place is truly safe. The team put a lot of effort and creativity in these twisted, psychedelic sequences, with very few gimmicks getting reused, if not for some story significance. The abundance of these sequences, however, ends up making the final chapters feel less scary than intended, as one can be more excited to see what the team came up with, rather than be afraid of opening yet another door.
The game’s themes and atmosphere are vastly enhanced by the presentation. The graphics are very well done, with excellent lighting and plenty of details, and so are all the special effects employed in the more psychedelic moments. It’s really difficult not to shiver when you see entire rooms changing, paintings dissolving into twisted versions of themselves and more. These special effects have a precise function in the context of the game, so they’re not a simple showcasing of the team’s ability and creativity. They’re a coherent and fundamental part of the whole vision.
The soundtrack is also one of the best features of Layers of Fear. There are a few hauntingly beautiful piano pieces, which are also tied to the game’s story and characters, that contribute in creating a surreal and melancholic atmosphere, evoking happy times long past. An honorable mention also goes to the voice actors, who have managed to charge the memories with heartfelt emotion.
With pretty much all of Layers of Fear elements geared towards creating the best horror experience possible, it’s disappointing to see the actual gameplay taking a backseat. The game is a linear experience, with no backtracking at all, locked areas and more. Other than walking from one room to another, players will also be able to interact with a variety of objects to find documents and other important items. There are a few simple puzzles to solve here and there, but they feel more like a nuisance rather than an actual challenge, especially when you’re hungering for the next story beat or the next scare. There’s plenty of additional content to be discovered, though, with some of the rooms and items being quite hard to discover during the first playthrough, so there’s another good reason to play through the game again other than to experience the nightmare once more.
The sporadic puzzles aren’t the only feature that breaks immersion, unfortunately. The performance of Layers of Fear is rather uneven on PlayStation 4, with frame rate drops and stuttering. They’re not that frequent, thankfully, but when they happen, they’re very noticeable.
The team had a very strong vision for Layers of Fear, and this is clear right from the beginning. The game’s characters and disturbing visions are so twisted yet vivid that they will stay with you for a long time, and even become part of your own nightmares. A few issues prevent the game from being a masterpiece, but if you’re looking for an involving experience, Layers of Fear is the game for you. Turn off all lights, put your headphones on, and get ready to finish what you started. For real, this time. Without regrets.