“Layers of Fear is a unique, immersive game experience in which every decision affects the narrative. As in life, it is the doors you open, the memories you take with you, and the shadows you explore that will define who you are. This may be our game, but it is your journey.”
This quote pops up right as you fire up a new save file within Layers of Fear, and it sets the tone for the game perfectly. Layers of Fear’s main goal is this immersion and connection with the character and his struggles to complete his magnum opus, putting aside friends, family, and his own health in order to find inspiration. A single run through the game took me a mere three hours, but Layers of Fear is a game that demands to be played multiple times in order to gain the full experience. At the time of this review, I have played through it once, so I am sure that I have not discovered absolutely everything this game has to offer, but I have experienced enough to adequately review it.
The player takes control of a painter reeling in the depths of his own insane mind. The painter is one of two characters that actually physically appears within the game, the other being a manifestation of his own insanity, so one could argue that he is the sole character within the Layers of Fear. Throughout the game, the goal is to retrieve materials that represent the different aspects of his magnum opus and his insanity. For example, the first material is a slice of skin, gained after interacting with a knife. Accompanying the acquisition of the skin is an inner monologue about the necessity of a canvas to paint on. The whole game is filled with this type of symbolism and eerie parallels with the artistic process.
The graphics within Layers of Fear are pretty hefty (I was running the game on the lowest setting and it still looked quite good), and definitely add to the feelings the game tries to evoke. Layers of Fear combines realistic graphics with surreal visuals to create an immersive and distinct dichotomy between the contents of the painter’s mind and the real world. To this effect, Layers of Fear does exactly what it needs to do in terms of visuals. Everything is dark and dreary at the start of the game, mirroring the rut the painter has gotten himself into in attempting to begin his opus. Rooms are this monotone shade of brown wood and darkness is the norm. As the game progresses and the player delves deeper into the painter’s twisted mind, uncovering his underlying issues and insanity, the game becomes more vibrant in the most disturbing way. Colors present themselves as disgusting, filmy oil, like paint that was lost on its way to the canvas. The color palate choice is of bright colors, but ones that elicit discomfort. The vibrant greens and reds and the startling hues give this sense of foreboding, forcing the player to tread through the painter’s madness apprehensively. This transition throughout the game highlights the mental shift the painter takes as he goes through the artistic process.
Musical aesthetics are few and far between in Layers of Fear. Generally, the player is left to the sound of their own footsteps and the creaking of doors. Though, when score is introduced, it is entirely for plot purposes. There is a scene in a child’s room with a music box that is a legitimately terrifying use of score. The sharp, plinking of the music box without any accompaniment gives this almost overwhelming feeling, especially in the context of the child’s room and dealing with the painter’s rapidly deteriorating mental state. For me, the main theme is the piece that stands out the most. The combination of the slow, methodical piano and almost wavering vocals makes the track that plays at the title screen and menu set the tone for the game very well. Layers of Fear takes the “quality over quantity” approach to music and it pays dividends, because when the music hits, it hits hard.
The best comparison I can make is that Layers of Fear is like a fully fleshed out PT (Playable Teaser for Silent Hills). It uses the same visual and audial scares as PT, but does not use the kind of metagame tricks. Gameplay in Layers of Fear is reminiscent of the control style of games from Frictional Games (the Amnesia and Penumbra series); the player uses wasd to move and the mouse to interact with the environment, though it feels much more rigid than in Frictional’s Amnesia games. Everything seems to snap quite easily to whatever state the player tries to place it in. Opening doors is a large part of the game, and it is apparent that the designers at Bloober Team wanted to make opening each door and entering each different room a harrowing experience. In opening a door, the player needs to click and hold to interact with it and swing the mouse forward or backward, mimicking the actual process of opening a door. This interaction was another neat tidbit that really upped the immersion in the painter’s deranged world.
Layers of Fear’s main gimmick is that the game likes to play with the knowledge that you can only see in one direction at a time, making use of the fact that the screen is your only field of view. They make you approach paintings, and warp the area behind you. Because of this, the game would actually become much more terrifying if done in virtual reality through an Oculus Rift or Vive. Playing with the ideas of object permanence and the immersion of virtual reality would bring the horror within Layers of Fear to an entirely new level. On top of this, doors frequently slam shut as soon as you make it through them. One event I remember in particular is the roof coming off of a room, and I did not notice it until I had run around the room at least twenty times, scouring all nooks and crannies. This shows that there are some shortcomings in playing with the view of the player, as they might not always look the specific direction that makes the payoff best. This gimmick was absolutely all over the game, and I will admit it became a bit routine. I would walk into a room, go to one side of it and get ready for things to be different by the time I turned around. This is not to say that Bloober Team did not use this well. They made fantastic use of each of their scares and of the atmosphere in Layers of Fear. The visual tricks and messing with the fact that the player can only see one way was not the only way they facilitated spooking the player. The technique of taking advantage of the player’s field of view is used enough to become established as the main method used by the game, but not so much that it becomes entirely tiresome.
Layers of Fear definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do with the quote at the start, which is be this unique (and terrifying) gaming experience that is shaped by the actions of the player. The decisions you make in the game really do have ramifications in the end with how the painter’s opus turns out and how the painter carries on with his life. Layers of Fear is honestly a pretty slow game, taking some time to pick up (or maybe that’s because I spend a good chunk of horror games cowering in the corner). After the first few “layers” of fear, the painter’s mind really begins to unravel and the surreal elements rear their heads. If you have the patience to wade through some setup and context for a really unique and strangely relatable narrative about the artistic process and the struggle of an artist, it is the game for you. Layers of Fear also features a hearty amount of symbolism in each brushstroke of the game. The skin as canvas that I mentioned earlier is just the tip of the iceberg of the unnerving parallels to the creative mind. Layers of Fear is a game wrought with allegory, symbols, and of course fear.
As Bloober Team’s first foray into this style of horror, Layers of Fear is a phenomenal game within the genre, and I’m hoping they continue this trend and put out another game of this style.