‘Layers of Fear’ (2016) Video Game Review
‘Layers of Fear’ (2016) Video Game Review
Genre: Survival horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media, Inc.
Mode: Single-player video game
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, Mac OS
Layers of Fear is a first-person psychedelic horror game with a heavy focus on story and exploration. Players take control of a painter whose sole purpose is to finish his Magnum Opus. The player must navigate through both a constantly changing Victorian-era mansion and ghastly visions of the painter’s fragile and crumbling psyche.
Many games can be divisive, as play styles and personal investment can really have a big effect on the satisfaction. Layers of Fear is no different, and we couldn’t come together on a single score, so Kim and Jordan got together and talked it over. Watch our gameplay footage and then read their review.
Jordan: Recently there has been a movement – if you could call it that… more of a trend I guess – of movies and video games moving closer together. This can be a good thing, as it forces developers to write decent stories to accompany their games. Layers of Fear certainly does this well, as there is a big focus on a demented, twisted story as well as a lingering atmosphere to accompany it. Games from the Telltale series (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales of the Borderlands) are a good example, where there is minimal player input while the game focuses on the story. I enjoyed those games, but honestly would have preferred to watch them as animated features.
Kim: Here’s where I’d have to disagree with you, Jordan. Games like this open up a new audience: those that appreciate a good story and a well-crafted atmosphere. And the other group would be audience like myself who aren’t quite as skilled in hand-eye coordination which makes constantly shooting enemies with today’s moving cameras and attacking simultaneously a challenge. Those skills take time to build. For that reason, it still has the appeal of playing a game and one that we can control just like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” concept.
J: I can see where you are coming from, not everybody plays video-games every day! Though during my play-through, I couldn’t find any choice in this game. Then again, I know I am in the minority here as the game is rated as ‘overwhelmingly positive’ on Steam. While the story is memorable, I felt that it could have been explored further. It is well written but also felt rather shallow – though I’m sure I am alone in thinking that. In addition to the story, we have the creepy atmosphere that this game creates, which is fantastic, I can’t deny that. The art direction must also be highlighted, as for a game about an insane painter, this game looks great. The demented artwork lying around the constantly changing house is another nice touch.
K: The art here, even in its weirdest moments, is beautiful along with the extremely creepy atmosphere. But, what creates the atmosphere? The soundtrack and background music/effects. It is knowing when to put in haunting music or just letting the player walk in silence with the subtle wood-creaking or shattered glass sounds to create the mood. What does need to be mentioned here is that Layers of Fear is trying to create something different for a horror gaming experience. It proves also that the much criticized (and linked with bad games) free Unity engine can create something beautiful with the right developers who have a great concept.
J: They have definitely created something a bit different here, and you are spot on about how they create the tension. I found progression a little frustrating though. I’m a fan of puzzles that need completion to continue, but here they are either far too easy, or it is a simple case of opening the right cupboard door and/or looking at the right object to progress the story, which becomes tiresome. It also reuses its tricks far too often; for example, if you enter a room and then find that the door at the other end is locked, you’ll find that the door you entered through is also locked. And so begins the process of finding the right item to analyse so the game can progress and the locked door will open. Again, these overused tricks become tiresome as the game begins to feel like a walking simulator with pretty images.
K: That’s a good point about the puzzles and the little clues that Layers of Fear uses. It is not a long game, maybe 4 to 5 hours of gameplay, so I don’t quite see the point of adding complex puzzles because the focus isn’t on that. However, my main issue of progression, which did get better once I got a hang of it, was the game mechanics themselves. I get that we can adjust the control sensitivity in the options menu and that having a cursor on the screen would hinder the atmosphere, but the constant dot locked on the screen and maneuvering it over the items we could interact with constantly frustrated me. It didn’t seem to have a constant range. Some items needed to be closer and others you could activate from a distance. Although, the wide area to activate the door was a plus. But with a controller, it was harder to control how wide the doors could open which I believe was supposed to be a feature of how interactive the game was. I figured that playing on PC (instead of PS4) with a mouse might work better.
J: I found the controls to be very clunky as well, especially swinging open doors with the mouse, a la Amnesia. It is also a good thing that it is as short as it is – I fear the game would get extremely repetitive if it were any longer. This has been labelled as a psychedelic horror game, which is an apt description considering the art direction. Unfortunately though, I couldn’t find the horror. The game relies a lot on jump-scares and cliched scary things (the sound of a little girl crying, baby dolls) to unsettle the player, and apart from the first thirty minutes, I wasn’t unsettled at all. The reason is simple, and is the difference between this and other horror titles such as Amnesia, Alien: Isolation, Outcast and SOMA. All those games have enemies, and the player can’t hurt them; all they can do is hide. Or run. Contrasting this, Layers of Fear doesn’t have anything that can hurt you. There is no ‘game over’ screen. Once I realised there weren’t any real enemies, the atmosphere created lost some of its power, and suddenly each step forward didn’t feel as tense as it did when I wasn’t sure if there were enemies or not.
K: Opposite of how you felt, I was definitely unsettled the whole time. Less so by the end because it was more about wrapping up the story and being in dark, ominous spaces with rather awkward puzzles than jumpscares. I guess this is where I’d have to partially agree with you about enemies. However, jumpscares and cliches are a staple of horror games, but it just exits that territory when it is set in an effective way. Layers of Fear does a good job at it especially because the story quickly enters into a disturbing territory. The character we play is exceptionally flawed and incredibly crazy. It didn’t need a specific enemy, even if we kind of did have one, because diving into the painter’s brain was already a horrific journey all on its own.
J: I think I may be a little too desensitized when it comes to horror games, Kim. The atmosphere certainly lingered, and I definitely got more than a few tingles up my spine. I enjoyed reading the scattered notes too, indicating that this painter is completely disconnected from reality, much like the game-world. Again though, it feels like something I’d have liked more as a movie. Despite the immaculate looking house the game takes place in, and all that great psychedelic imagery, I found this to be a bit boring after the first 30 minutes, and rather frustrating during the last 30. Apparently there are three different endings, though how they are achieved I do not know. What I do know is that the less said about the ending I achieved, the better.
K: I actually went ahead and found what the other two endings were but I’m going to keep that a secret. Layers of Fear has a great concept and creates a fantastic atmosphere, haunting soundtracks and just beautiful in all its sequences. However, it suffers from not well-defined enough gameplay that manages to cause some frustration and pulls away from the gaming experience whenever it occurs.