Layers of Fear Review

By Marc Hollinshead, 10 months ago
Over the years, the theme of horror in games has manifested itself in different ways. Grotesque monsters have plagued us in the likes of Dead Space and The Evil Within, whereas the Silent Hill series, arguably one of the founding fathers of horror in video games, focused on methodical gameplay. What has been sorely lacking for a long time in this genre, though, is true atmosphere and tension. Amnesia has been widely praised for how it causes the player to be constantly on edge, but these games have been few and far between. Bloober Team has attempted to reinvigorate these themes with Layers of Fear. Although it has been part of the Game Preview program on Xbox for a longer period, console owners can now experience the game in full. Is this highly anticipated "psychedelic horror" title worth a look?

What's on the other side of the canvas?What's on the other side of the canvas?

Layers of Fear throws you into the shoes of a troubled painter whose life appears to be in a complete shambles. Upon entering his house, you will be tasked with finishing a final painting in an attempt to fix his broken life, but this barely scratches the surface as to what is haunting his shattered mind. The story is not spoon-fed to you like the majority of games today. Instead, you eventually figure out past events as you progress, finding scattered notes on the walls, floor and various objects. Even now (at the time of writing), there are plot theories that are circulating the Internet as to what transpired, and this is part of the game's appeal. An air of mystery surrounds the story, and the excitement of piecing everything together as you play is an enjoyment that is rarely experienced in gaming.

The gameplay of Layers of Fear is limited, but by no means is that a bad thing. Mirroring his mental state, our unfortunate artist constantly hobbles from place to place. Interacting with doors and a few other items is the gameplay in a nutshell. However, the main focus is building intense atmosphere through visual effects and sounds, and this is easily what causes Layers of Fear to be a gem of a title. In each of the game's chapters, you will essentially be collecting an item to help further the painter in finishing his "Magnum Opus", but to do that, he will be subjected to traumatic experiences and unexplainable environmental changes while traversing his house. The developers certainly unleashed their creative side here because the sheer quality of the game's design is astounding. Paintings will melt before your eyes, objects will fling across the room and entire corridors will transform into grotesque versions of themselves. Many paintings will make repeat appearances, but there is still plenty of variation in level design. All of it, of course, is a personification of the painter's insanity and it is genuinely unnerving to see what he is struggling with, but at the same time it is utterly fascinating.

Only a true artist can produce something as vile as thisOnly a true artist can produce something as vile as this

In true horror fashion, Layers of Fear can be frightening. The game does have jump scares, and I will not deny that I hastily paused the game in a sudden attempt to compose myself after a painting violently smashed itself against the wall, but this isn't where the game places all of its cards. Instead, the ever-present feeling of being on edge surrounds you as you explore. Both the soundtrack and sound effects are exceptional and are used at just the right points. You'll regularly be opening doors with one eye closed, or slowly turning around with the feeling that something is about to pounce, but there's nothing truly there, of course. Nevertheless, it will be tough to charge through the game because of the intense atmospheric quality that the game possesses. Ironically, it's when complete silence takes over that you'll feel the most vulnerable. Less is more in this instance. Whether it's the lonely sound of the painter's footsteps, the screech of a violin note, or an unsettling tune as you enter a new room, Layers of Fear's audio is superbly executed.

Another strength of Layers of Fear is the way in which the environment constantly changes around you. You'll be revisiting rooms multiple times but never in the same scenario. Every time you begin a new chapter and exit the painter's workshop, a completely different room or corridor will be placed before you, each with a unique design. Simply by turning around in some of these rooms, the area will immediately change to something different or a new passageway will open up. This, along with the painter's drunken-like stupor, can sometimes cause disorientation that adds to the game's atmosphere all the more. The developer has aimed to bring us right to the heart of this deranged psyche and they have done so almost perfectly.

Occasionally, specific interactions and puzzle-like segments will also need to be performed to progress. These aren't too difficult and they help to give the game a little more depth so that it isn't just a spooky walking simulator. Even without these sections, the game's mood and theme are enough to keep players hooked to the end, despite how simple it may appear on the outside.

When you see darkness in a horror game, what do you do? Walk towards it, of course!When you see darkness in a horror game, what do you do? Walk towards it, of course!

When it comes to horror games, a downside is that after your first playthrough, the experience isn't quite as exciting. As Layers of Fear is built almost solely on atmosphere, this means that it should lose a lot of its appeal once you've completed the game for the first time. This is only partly true, though. The game has multiple outcomes depending on actions that are performed throughout and it's still a bit of mystery as to what triggers each of the endings. Certain corridors have more than one exit and some areas are entirely missable if you don't keep your eyes open carefully. Add missable notes and sketches to be found on top of that and there is some re-playability to be had. Regardless, you will probably be able to do what you couldn't the first time around and charge through many of the rooms, not being afraid of what's on the other side. The playtime is massively shortened as a result and the atmospheric quality diminishes, but it's still interesting to find secrets and witness each of the endings as a reward for playing through multiple times.

Throughout the first playthrough, the game ran smoothly for the most part and looked great while doing so. There were occasions when progress was halted for a brief moment as the game loaded and the frame-rate dropped slightly in one of the closing sections. However, there weren't any bugs to be found due to the game's simple nature -- just an abundance of creepy paintings instead.


Layers of Fear has just 18 achievements in total, but you'll need to play the game more than once to grab every one. The one to take note of is the Omniscient achievement where you must reach all endings in the game. Doing this will probably bag you most, if not all of the others in the process as you search the painter's house, hunting down all of the collectibles. It's not a hard list by any means, so those who play the game should be able to manage the 1,000 gamerscore without too much trouble. At least you get to gaze at beautiful paintings along the way.

Summary

Layers of Fear is a fantastic example of why atmospheric games still deserve a place in the industry. While you'll be startled plenty of times by ghostly figures and distorted paintings, the tension and mood throughout the game will be what compels you to keep playing. The sound effects and music have been used to great effect and the way in which the environment manipulates itself around you adds all the more to the painter's insanity as he aims to complete his work. While the game is only at its full potential on your first playthrough, the extra secrets and collectibles help to add replayability to what may have originally been thought of as a "one play only" title, even if those extra playthroughs are quick ones. There have been much shorter and less polished games for the price point of £15.99/$19.99, so even though it's not exceptionally long, the quality easily counteracts this. If you're after an enthralling experience, horror fan or not, Layers of Fear is a great way to satisfy the itch.
4.5 / 5
Positives
  • Extremely atmospheric
  • Fantastic sound effects and soundtrack
  • Clever use of environment manipulation
  • Hidden secrets add replayability
Negatives
  • Can race through the game very quickly if you don't take your time
  • Atmospheric quality diminishes in subsequent playthroughs
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 7.5 hours delving into the painter's haunted mind while getting spooked plenty of times. He gained 13 of the game's 18 achievements in the process. A digital code for the game was provided by the developers for the purpose of this review.
Marc Hollinshead
Written by Marc Hollinshead
To summarize Marc in two words, it would be "Christian Gamer." You will usually find him getting stuck into story heavy action-adventure games, RPG's and the odd quirky title when he isn't raving about Dark Souls and Mass Effect. Outside the world of gaming, Marc attends and helps out in his church on a regular basis and has a not-so thrilling job in a supermarket.