Layers of Fear – PS4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media, Inc.
Release Date: February 16, 2016
Reviewed by ChronoSloth
I love horror games. Ever since I begged my father to buy me Resident Evil on PS1 after seeing it receive such high praise in gaming magazines, I’ve been addicted. The genre nearly died with the disbanding of Team Silent (who were responsible for Silent Hill 1-4) but thankfully indie titles have revitalized the scene and we’re in a golden age right now. Despite the tragedy of Silent Hills being canceled, the short teaser for it, P.T., was so well designed and so affecting that we’re starting to see it influence tons of new releases. Layers of Fear certainly borrows from P.T., but make no mistake, this is no jump scare ridden Let’s Play bait stealing ideas from Kojima’s horror concept, nor is it so closely following the Silent Hills teaser that it aims to replace the canceled title (see Allison Road).
Layers of Fear takes the idea of a protagonist with a loosening grip on reality, pairs it with an interesting and disturbing story of an artist’s descent into insanity and its effects on those around him, and makes for one of the best horror experiences of this generation.
In Layers of Fear, you are an unnamed artist who has just returned to his home after a court hearing. After a brief narration that sets the tone and gives you the slightest hint of what to do, you are left to explore the home freely. Instead of combat, stealth, or escape, Layers of Fear‘s gameplay consists of puzzle solving and thoroughly exploring the house so you can finish your painting. The artist’s home is detailed and full of trinkets and notes that will clue you in on what dark events have taken place and what exactly is going on. A lot can be inferred from non-interactable objects, and I appreciate that not all of the storytelling in the game is in your face. Special collectibles that are accompanied by audio clips for further exposition are often easy to find, but your controller will also clue you in to their location, as you’ll hear frantic but unintelligible whispers from your DualShock 4’s speaker when you get closer to them. Spooky!
Unless you’re following a guide, its highly unlikely you’ll find all of the collectibles, meaning you won’t be getting the whole story. I don’t see this as a negative; the mystery of the game allows for speculation and imagination, and I think that just about always works in horror’s favor.
Until you enter your art room/office, your house remains safe and… intact. What I mean by this is that after you enter your work room and begin the sole objective of the game in finishing your painting, the setting of the game completely loses its shit (likely only in our character’s mind). The house becomes an unapologetic nonsensical set of hallways, stairs, rooms, and elevators with no regard for logic or consistency, save for a few repeating locations that only serve to confuse you more by offering concrete spots for reference who’s paths to and from shift constantly. When you leave the office in search of your… painting materials (you’ll see) your environment can change before your eyes, but most often will crumble/vanish/form when you’ve looked away.
Plenty of games love to spook players with things that vanish or appear suddenly, like Condemned‘s mannequins, or the doctor who appears in the mirror in Bioshock, or Resident Evil 7…with mannequins again. However, I’ve never seen this technique used more effectively and with such drastic changes to setting or gameplay as it’s employed in Layers of Fear, and it’s even done well from a technical standpoint! Layers of Fear doesn’t force your gaze or have the screen flash for these transitions, nor is there a distance trigger and/or a poorly defined field of view that would allow you to see buggy transitions occur. The immersion isn’t broken by any of the changes happening in a “gamey” way. There’s a lot of polish behind the smoke and mirrors present here, and it’s especially impressive for an indie game.
Speaking of polish, Layers of Fear doesn’t disappoint in terms of presentation. Excluding some reused/re-purposed assets in certain parts of the game, there’s no aspect of the graphics or visual design that is unpleasing here.
One interesting and especially impressive feature is that the character is missing one of their legs, and wears an incorrectly sized prosthetic replacement (as revealed by an angry annotation on one of the game’s notes) that gives the player a unique first person head bob as they walk. The resultant hobble can also be heard in the rhythm of your footsteps.
Awesome details like this really make Layers of Fear feel like a game that care has been put into. I was especially pleased with how the transformations look. Some of the more abstract changes to the setting are truly a sight to behold.
Though I appreciate how beautiful the game is, it’s the sound design, without which Layers of Fear would truly be remiss. Featuring a variety of gorgeous and haunting piano tracks (that are tied to the plot for even more spookage), LOF sets itself apart by choosing to forgo the generic horror movie/game music filled with shrill strings and instead packs emotion into its soundtrack. There’s also plenty of unsettling noises you’ll hear in the home to keep you immersed and uneasy.
Layers of Fear is a beautiful, unsettling, and impressive first-person horror game. The oddly named developer, Bloober Team, had their first game Basement Crawl release to negative critical reception, so it’s wonderful to see them buckle down and redeem themselves fully with this polished experience that’s attracted quite a bit of positive attention. Though Layers of Fear‘s macabre story of deteriorating psyches is chilling and enthralling, and its themes and artistry are unique and memorable, it is still the way that the world changes when your back is turned that made me love the game most – and I do love this game.
With few negatives to speak of (a bit of iffy voice acting, a few issues with pacing) Layers of Fear provides a unique, haunting experience that I’d wholeheartedly recommend to any fellow horror fans.
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