I didn’t play Layers of Fear as intended. I lost count of the number of times that I would be bent over, rifling through a pair of drawers or rummaging through a cupboard when – DUNG! – the audio would clatter through my headphones, and I’d turn around to see what I missed. A paint trail would smear around a corner, or I would see the resulting carnage from a piano that clattered down the corridor. I’m sure it would have had an unsettling effect, had I seen it, but I was too busy searching for rat drawings, ‘whispering’ items, and any number of letters and journals that would fill out the story and perhaps net me some Gamerscore. As it turned out, it would even lead to a better ending, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I couldn’t quite land on whether this was a fault of Layers of Fear, or a fault of my own. Layers of Fear definitely wanted to scare me (the clue was in the name), but I lightly strolled through the game with a view mostly to the furniture. My experience was more like an episode of Antiques Roadshow than The Haunting of Bly Manor.
There are a few lessons to be learned, I think. One is on my part: I am a completionist gamer, and there are games where the approach fits perfectly. Platformers are a joy, as I won’t skip to the next level until all the collectibles are neatly squirreled into the napsack. Metroidvanias, too, are built from the ground up for a completionist. It’s in their DNA to return to old areas; to exhaust them with your newfound abilities. But I think Layers of Fear was a bit of a turning point for me, in understanding when that kind of approach should be repressed.
Horror games are about the experience: feeling that creeping dread before the payoff, when you either realise the silhouette was a jacket on a hatstand, or a giant 9ft vampire woman lurching after you. It’s incredibly hard to build that creeping dread if you’re elbow-deep into chests and other collectibles. Sometimes you have to go along for the ride, and if the ride’s good enough, then you can always New Game+ it, with a view to collecting.
There’s a lesson there that Bloober Team have learned for Observer and The Medium. Collecting is still present – it’s a Bloober Team thing now – but you’re more likely to see something as you sprint through, rather than find it nestled in a filing cabinet somewhere. In the case of Layers of Fear, it’s worth protecting the experience, because the experience is undoubtedly effective, with some stellar moments. A chapter around dolls, crayons and nurseries was particularly memorable.
Layers of Fear is not a long game, and it doesn’t span a huge amount of geography – you are often found revisiting the same rooms of the same mansion repeatedly. So, to make Layers of Fear satisfying and varied, Bloober Team had a few paints in their paintbox. The first, and probably most successful, was the simple idea that the mansion never rested, and the rooms would change regularly. On a macro scale, this worked well, as you were led to believe that you’d built a mental map of the mansion. Layers of Fear was the first game to properly make me realise how much I relied on that mental map, and how tugging it away would completely disorient me.
On a micro scale, though, it worked stupendously. Layers of Fear would put an attention-grabbing portrait up on the wall, just demanding that you look at it. But turn away from the painting and look back at the room and – ta da! – everything has shifted into a new orientation or even a completely new room. I half-hoped to turn around and spot the stagehands in the act, moving a doll to another part of the room in a full black leotard. Turn back to the painting, and it will have shifted up too, becoming a rat-faced woman or something else downright unappealing. It had its foibles (too often the way out was the way I came in, and it just felt like I was a marble rolling between two ramps), but this effect leaned on the sensational P.T. and made it into an entire game, as well as paved the way for games like Visage and, obviously, Layers of Fear 2. A room that caused panic by putting bricks behind every door, then revealing that the solution was ‘up’, will stay in the memory.
These were the most effective parts of the game, but I bypassed too many of them. You can only notice differences in a room if you actually pay attention to the room in the first place. And scouting every last room becomes difficult when they keep bloody moving. Scanning for collectibles was definitely not the way to enjoy Layers of Fear.
The other two paints in Layers of Fear’s paintbox are the ‘jump-scare’, and the mystery that plays at its heart. The jump-scare is a much-maligned art, and most of the time it’s done badly – an artificial and sudden spike when there isn’t any tension, or a cheap payoff when there’s a bucketload of tension. Layers of Fear mostly gets it right, although the emphasis is still on mostly: it can still be cheap. When it works, it’s often because the jump-scares have reinforced that this is a haunted house constructed as a puzzle box, shifting and warping as you walk. The jump-scares feel moderately earned as a result.
There are several mysteries in Layers of Fear, and the game is not particularly interested in answering them. Who are you? Are you the father in the tale? What was the final fate of the family? Where are the supernatural elements coming from? There’s a hint of The Shining to this tale of obsession and murder, but – I will be honest – it was too patchy to be satisfying. The house was more interesting than the story that caused it.
If you are looking to belatedly play Layers of Fear, please learn from our lessons. More so than most horror stories, Layers of Fear is a rollercoaster – one that often goes backwards and forwards, and the track gets replaced by other pieces of track – but it is a rollercoaster nonetheless. The best approach to a ride is to buckle in, lift the arms out of the carriage and enjoy the feeling as you’re tossed and turned. The worst way to appreciate a rollercoaster, as we found out too late, is to be searching in the footwell for coins and bits of rubbish.
Did you have a similar experience with Layers of Fear? Did you enjoy the heck out of it? Let us know in the comments below. And if you haven’t played it, the Xbox Store will sort you out with a download.