Classical paintings have always been a subject close to my heart, which explains why I spent four years at a university studying art and art history, but when the paintings betray me like they do in Layers of Fear, I’ve found a new way to express my feelings: pure fear. A psychedelic horror game at heart, developer Bloober Team has created a masterpiece, having me guess not only the sanity of the game’s character but my own as I delve deeper into madness.
As the game opens up, you find yourself in the foyer of what seems like an average Victorian manor during the early 19th Century. Empty rooms are dimly lit by candles and antique lamps, paintings adorn the every wall, but a bleak darkness looms over the residence. Much like Gone Home, Layers of Fear focuses on player exploration and self-narration through your interaction with the environment. Letters, notes and scraps of paper are hidden throughout the house on dressers, inside drawers, and anywhere else you may think to look. This leaves much of the narrative up to the player. Someone that spends time meticulously finding and reading everything possible will better understand the madness and grimly events that transpired as the character looks to paint his next great masterpiece.
It doesn’t take long before you realize that something is off, not only is your family missing, but you find blood seemingly oozing underneath darkened door, a piano eerily slams shut, and empty wine bottles can be found in almost every closet, pantry, and chest throughout the house. This, of course, is only the beginning, and I’d rather not spoil anything that happens after the opening sequence. With similarities to P.T. are apparent, Bloober Team has gone beyond the P.T. experience, crafting a unique experience that tightly envelops the player, and has you second guessing your own eyes.
Jump scares have always been a cheap tactic whether in a game or movie, but Layers of Fear transcends past traditional scares and borrows deeply within your mind until you can’t trust anything you see or hear. Yes, there are a couple of moments where something may jump out from the darkness, but the true horror comes from watching the environment twist and distort right in front of you. Character portraits will melt away to reveal monstrous figures dripping with blood; the creepiest looking dolls will unnerve even the bravest of souls as they appear to move in the darkness of hallways. You’ll hear whispers or laughter or sounds from the pits of hell behind you only to realize nothing is there, but as you turn around, the room is longer the same as it was.
Your senses betray you in Layers of Fear, as reality becomes altered thanks to the unsettling imagery. Doors you just passed through will slam shut and lock behind you, or may no longer be there as you turn around. Hang a left at the end of a hallway and you may find yourself trapped in an infinite loop, only to have a horrific looking painting or worse appear directly behind you. Early on you realize your character has an obsession with rats, which will dominate him by scattering across the floors, and inside of deteriorating walls, almost in a taunting fashion.
As you meticulously make your way through the unnerving maze of rooms, you’ll interact with objects, but mostly you’ll spend the majority of your time looking around. Playing through the game using a Steam Controller, I never felt the controls impeded my progress, or negatively affected my playthrough. However, at times, the game will stutter briefly, but thankfully it didn’t interfere with any of the many scares in the game. I believe it was due to the game auto-saving, but the split second does take you out of the experience, especially when your suddenly staring at the ceiling. Dying when it does happen, is of little consequence. After a gruesome scene, you wake up nearby to where you just were.
Layers of Fear is a masterpiece of horror, successfully having me second guessing everything painting, door, and object in the game. There isn’t much in the way of replay value unless you feel the need to collect missing achievements/trophies. With that said, I can’t remember the last game that legitimately gave me goosebumps up and down both arms.Note: Layers of Fear was reviewed on PC. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher/developer.