Having graduated from the Xbox Preview Program, Layers of Fear is now available as a full game for purchase on Xbox One. Bloober Team has clearly set out to do something different with the horror genre, which is usually filled with jump scares and creepy enemies to fight. They are able to do something different on a few fronts, but overall their efforts are met with only limited success.
Layers of Fear does some things very well. Given that there are no enemies in the game to fight, it is very reliant on a strong story, which you flesh out as you play through the game. In many ways, Layers of Fear feels like the haunted, insane version of Gone Home. You play as an artist who is struggling to regain his touch, having failed in many of his recent works. As you begin to explore the house in an effort to complete the artist’s masterpiece, you dive deeper and deeper into madness, with the house serving as the vehicle for the story.
The descent into madness in Layers of Fear is represented by the changes to the house as you play. What seems like a normal house at the time begins to change and shift as you play through the game. Doors and hallways will appear and disappear as you turn corners, and the house is filled with evidence of the two demons the artist faces: madness and alcoholism. A thorough approach to exploring will allow you to find many letters and notes from the artist that assist you in putting the story together, until that is you come to the one realisation that helps set Layers of Fear apart – there are no monsters to fight in the game because the monster is behind the controller.
One by one you will assemble the items needed to complete your masterpiece, which helps you gradually gain full realisation of how mad the main character has become. I won’t reveal the items or how it seems he got them, but they leave the player with a sense that the main character has done something truly horrible. This is the driving force in Layers of Fear, it made me want to keep playing to see what he had done next. The element of madness and the terrible things the main character had done were far more effective in creating a scary setting than the jumpy scary moments ever were.
As you play through the game, you will encounter a few spirits in hallways and rooms. There is no way to fight them, but they can kill you if you get too close. If this happens (let it happen once, there is an achievement for it), you watch a brief scene and the game starts you about thirty seconds back from where you were. Aside from that, there is really nothing that can kill you, unless you fall from a tall ledge – something which I managed to accomplish once.
Since there is no tension or fear about what you will find around the next corner, Layers of Fear unfortunately falls back on familiar horror themes to keep the scare going. Things like defaced paintings, creepy dolls and troubling children’s drawings are things I have seen dozens of times before and they make it seem like Bloober Team is taking the easy way out here. Overall, the creepy vibe is definitely present and accounted for, but there are instances that are so unoriginal they induce an eye roll.
Layers of Fear includes puzzles at various points in the game that you must complete to progress. While there is one puzzle in particular involving telephones that is fun and challenging, the rest are often so simplistic or repetitive that they leave something to be desired. More than one puzzle involves locating checkers pieces in a dark room, which is exactly as fun as it sounds. Yes they glow a little bit to help you, but by the fifth time I was trying to find one I was quite over the whole thing.
Visually, Layers of Fear offers a solid presentation that adds to the experience. There is often just enough light in rooms to find drawers and cabinets to open, and the neon paint colors offer a nice contrast to the dark and eerie setting while also adding to the theme of madness. In terms of audio, the game shines. Have you ever watched a horror movie with the sound off? If you have, you know sound is a critical element in the genre, and Layers of Fear nails it. You will walk up to a door and hear someone banging on it from the other side. Wind sound effects often add a creepy vibe when walking down a hallway. The music that plays helps create the feeling of tension. Overall, in terms of audio and visual presentation, Layers of Fear is successful in creating a believable, immersive environment.
Aside from the use of all too familiar horror themes at times, Layers of Fear has two other drawbacks. First, the game can be overly repetitive at times. You will experience more than one sequence where you go down a hallway, open a door, find a note, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. For a game that can easily be completed in four to five hours or less, that much repetition is troubling. Secondly, while Layers of Fear does a great job of immersing you in the downward spiral of madness, the fact that there are no enemies to fight takes away from the scary nature of the game. I quickly got to a point where I was not remotely afraid of what might be behind the next door or inside a cabinet. Essentially, I felt like I was indestructible, and that took away from the experience.
Layers of Fear is a good, fun horror experience for players that enjoy psychological horror. If you can look past the handful of drawbacks the game has, it is an enjoyable four to five hour experience and worth a purchase for fans of the genre. However, if you enjoy fighting off scary enemies and overcoming an evil force at the end, this game will leave you disappointed. At $19.99 USD/£15.99 GBP, you won’t get a whole lot of replay value from Layers of Fear, so I recommend it for fans of the horror genre only.