By: Brian Gunn
Layers of Fear is a game about a painter attempting to paint his masterpiece while dealing with his inner demons. Polish developer Bloober Team invites you to visit his home, as well as his mind.
While the world of the game may constantly be twisting and turning, the controls are fairly simple. Layers of Fear is an adventure game that has more in common with Gone Home than it does any of the older entries in the genre, more interested in telling you a story than being mechanically deep. There’s basic interaction like opening doors and examining objects, and a few light observational puzzles, but nothing players will find themselves struggling with.
Undoubtedly, the greatest strength of Layers of Fear is in its visuals. The general texture work and lighting is great, and the game is adorned with a variety of classic paintings, or ones imitating the style. However, the most impressive part is how seamlessly the world changes.
It’s a story that involves someone not exactly sane, and so frequently the world shifts or changes without any input or loading. This is doubly impressive for a game running the Unity engine, which frequently has issues with loading in new areas. It’s not all rosy though, as there are some stutters in the latter chapter of the game.
Like many horror games, sound is also an important aspect. There isn’t much music in the game, though it does have a wonderful title screen theme. Voice acting is pretty rare as well, and what is included is a bit on the hammy side. Sound effects excel, providing the needed punctuation to the game’s many jump scares.
The unnamed central character of Layers of Fear is a disgraced painter returning home committed to churning out the next great work of art. Of course, things don’t go according to plan, as the normal house you’re introduced to becomes a nightmarish hellscape as soon as you attempt to paint.
Layers’ story is broken into fairly segmented chapters where the goal is to find a material for the painting, each one more ghoulish than the last. While the game takes place in a home, it is one prone to becoming a surreal maze with only one constant, the work room, where you’ll apply the next coat of paint.
It becomes a sort of port in the storm, containing most of the game’s collectibles as well as where the game auto-saves. That last fact may be a bit of an issue for some, as the game only really saves after moving into the next chapter of the game, and with some chapters being fairly long, players will need to stay with it so they don’t lose progress.
It quickly becomes clear that the game isn’t so much about the disgraced painter getting his career back on track and is more interested in what led him to this point. Layers of Fear has very little present day storytelling, and instead it invites players to wallow in the past. There’s a wife, and a child, and their fates are told through old diaries, newspapers clips and the occasional narration. They play key parts in the horrors that steadily ramp up over the course of the story.
With “fear” in the title, players will be expecting something scary. Sadly, Layers of Fear is a mixed bag in this regard. It starts off spooky enough, with loud crashes and skittering rats getting on your nerves. The first few encounters with each tactic work fairly well, but they quickly go overboard. One section involves a bunch of dolls that are meant to be creepy, but it just ends up feeling silly.
Still, that isn’t to say the game is without merit. Due to the ever-shifting nature of the house whenever you pan the camera away, the game instills a sense of feeling lost and not quite knowing what’s around the corner that few horror games manage.
There’s also some clever use of player choice, with the areas accessed and ending changing depending on how you reacted to the game. Players can die at a few points, but Layers continues on, though changing in small ways. Certain secrets and puzzles require a player to have paid attention for quite a bit to unlock them, such as a vault near the end.
Layers of Fear is a noteworthy horror game, albeit not an especially scary one. It’s still worth experiencing for its story and clever visual manipulation of the player.