Review: Layers of Fear

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My five-year-old daughter likes to scare me occasionally, sneaking into my room while I’m busy brushing my teeth and screaming as loud as her distressingly-powerful lungs will let her. It’s jarring and unpleasant but I laugh it off because she’s just trying to be funny, and more importantly she doesn’t do it that often. If she screamed in my face every morning and afternoon and evening it would quickly reach tiresome and cruise straight on to aggravating. My five-year-old daughter understands this, but for some reason the people behind Layers of Fear do not, despite crafting an otherwise beautiful and fascinating game to house their cheap jumpscares.

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The game opens with very little explanation, you alone in a palatial Victorian mansion stuffed full of art supplies. It soon becomes clear that you are a painter, a husband, and a father, and these aspects of your life do not coexist peacefully. You are compelled to complete your greatest work, but there are demons pulling at you every step of the way and the further you get in the closer to home they hit. As you battle through the twisted mansion to achieve your goal, the true nature of your painter avatar is made shockingly clear.

In gameplay terms, this is a walking simulator. You wander the halls of your mansion, free to open drawers and cabinets in search of collectibles or rare discoveries like keys, ever onward towards your goal. Every chapter starts in your studio and takes you through a seemingly random assortment of nightmarish halls and chambers. There are points where your path will branch in subtle ways but it always ends in the same place, a dramatic setpiece that reveals key events in your character’s past and supplies him with one of the necessary pieces of his masterpiece.

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I don’t use the term “walking simulator” derisively, in fact I rather enjoy these guided tours of nightmare mindscapes. Layers of Fear is near the top of the pile in aesthetic, at least, with an impressive amount of detail on every wall fixture, desk drawer, and pile of rubble. The many halls of the manor are distinct enough to be memorable, and setpieces often use huge numbers of small objects like checkers or books to give locations a tactile, lived-in feel. It’s a wonderfully dreary place topped off with some incredible effects like melting furniture and paint flows that make you feel right at home in a twisted projection of reality.

There’s plenty to marvel at as you explore the vast mansion, but you’ll be scouting around under a permanent air of dread. This is a horror game after all, and all those magical details are designed to make you feel as fraught and threatened as possible. Flickering lights, broken doors, scrabbling in the walls, melting paintings, and darker things still will accost you as you slip further into the madhouse. The atmosphere reaches a number of feverishly oppressive peaks, always capped off with a shock like hurtling books or slamming doors or screaming ghosts.

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And honestly, that’s where the game loses me. It doesn’t just lose me, it actively drives me away in a huff because as much as I love the atmosphere, I DESPISE the jumpscares. I’m a jumpy person and I don’t care much for big shocks like screamers, but I’ll tolerate ones in games like SOMA and Oxenfree because they’re infrequent and earned. Layers of Fear, in stark contrast, ends almost every single one of their building spooks with a loud noise and jarring visual. There’s hardly any break between them, as scares usually come only three or four rooms apart. What’s worse is that they’re often telegraphed, too… anytime a door locks behind you or the next one doesn’t open immediately, you’re in Scarytown for the duration.

Combined with the ultimately linear nature of the game, this sucks a ton of the fun out of an otherwise promising horror game and turns it into a cheap carnival ride. Walk 10 steps, watch a screamer. Walk another 20, get books thrown at you. Turn the corner, a window bangs. It becomes utterly perfunctory, yet keeps trying harder and harder to shock you by getting louder and more audacious. By the end Layers of Fear feels like a game that was designed to be moody and atmospheric, and then was harangued endlessly for not being scary enough until it was completely over-tuned. The cheap jumpscares are so much more annoying because they’re not even necessary, yet they persist and fight ever harder to shock you.

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That should tell you everything you need to know to decide on this one yourself, but if you’re in the mood for spoilers I’m going to talk about the story a bit. I don’t normally dabble in spoilers but by the end I was so fed up with the main character that I simply couldn’t manage my ire anymore. Your dude is a tortured artist who is obsessed with his work, obsessed with professional validation, and obsessed enough to neglect his family to literal death. Ostensibly this is a story about redemption but you’ll soon find he’s so irredeemable that you’ll almost wish his demons would just kill him. I actually did that in the later chapters where his dead wife is wandering around, I would run him right into her cold, fatal embrace because after everything I had seen and heard from him he deserved nothing more. Seriously, to complete his masterwork he’s searching for pieces of his family, tanned skin and blood vials and an actual eyeball, to paint with. The man turned his wife and daughter into art supplies and we’re supposed to believe his soul can be saved? Really?

Ultimately, Layers of Fear is a horror game with an incredibly promising base and a painfully inept structure built upon it. The technology and artistry on display is undeniable, the game looks amazing and has a talent for surprising and impressing. But instead of using that talent to build a compelling story and atmosphere, the game settles for cheap, mindless scares and a story that simply doesn’t work. I won’t deny that I enjoyed admiring the squalor of the mansion and rifling through dressers for clues, but the knowledge that another dumb room with a dumb screaming scare was coming up always filled me with the wrong kind of dread. When I finished the game I felt such relief, not at the conclusion of a compelling story or at the accomplishment of a goal, but at the fact that I would never have to play this wretched thing again.

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