Layers of Fear
Post Game Review
(CAUTION MODERATE SPOILERS)
Overview: Killer Art
Layers of Fear is a short first-person exploration psychological thriller developed by Bloober Team and published by Aspyr. It explores one man’s descent into madness as he attempts to reconcile his past actions involving his family to regain his artistic integrity. The player will control the artist and undergo hallucinogenic attacks as he explores his house and tries to rationally piece together the events that led him to his current state. For review purposes, I completed the game once with one ending, and played roughly 5 hours.
The gameplay aspect is summarized as camera driven exploration with puzzle solving and psychological horror elements. There is no combat or aspects of leveling to be concerned with, only progression through the story. Six chapters, or stages, of the game exist for you to trek through. In all of them you will confront the protagonists nightmares about his past life and the tragedies that occurred to him and his family.
As you explore the house, you’ll come across items to examine which help to explain the story’s plot in greater detail. Many of them have direct relationships to the artist’s fears that have either become realized or explain details about the tragedy of his family. These will often be hidden in drawers and cabinets but they can also be hidden in odd places where the game may or may not give you cues for in the form of creepy audio or in-game events.
Sporadically, you will encounter puzzles which must be solved before you can progress, although there are several instances where they are optional to obtain lore. Since the game is horror themed, these puzzles range between light logic problems to turning down every corner in a maze like fashion until you are in the right place at the right time. The horror themed instances were my favorite part as they didn’t always rely on the overplayed jump scares presented by many modern games and instead explore the macabre hair-raising method of the psychological recollection.
Finally, you will have encounters with the ghosts that haunt the protagonist and his house. Many of these have to do with his wife, child, and his career as an artist. They range between mildly spectral such as a light turning off and then something appearing when they come back on, to a full-blown chaotic world while running for your life. Many encounters present optical illusions or hidden aspects for you to find before you an progress through them. And while you can be “killed” inside the game, there are no game overs, only missed opportunities at lore.
There are three endings to be found in the game based on the items you acquire, your physical response with encounters, and how you deal with the phantom of his dead wife.
Layers of Fear follows the story of an unnamed artist who undergoes a series of bad turns stemming from the neglect of his family, his wife destroying his art, and a subsequent accident involving his wife. After his family separates from him, his wife, a successful pianist, is injured in a fire and in an attempt to reconcile, he begins to take care of them again. Soon after, his inability to cope with his failures as an artist and his familial issues drive him to madness.
During the player controlled portions of the game, these events (in more detail) are in the past. The artist is undergoing hallucinations which turns his trip through a medium sized house into a trek through a psychologically tormented mansion. His recollections assault him as he attempts to find the inspiration to overcome his artist’s block.
Since the game is exploration driven sans platforms, the controls are relatively simple. Most of your time will be spent walking around at a limping pace through the house. And though you can run, there aren’t many instances where it comes in handy or is desired to do so.
The other half of the time you will be searching through the house for documents and items of interest. Unfortunately this was the least fun part of the game as the controls for doing so weren’t quite on point and the act itself was a tad tedious. You could tell that the design team attempted to avoid searching during some encounters but it will without a doubt drive many completionist types crazy as they attempt to find items in pitch black rooms due to fact that the same objects/drawers populate most areas of the house.
I did have about 5 instances of analog drift where exiting one scene caused my analog stick to force my in circles from neutral, but I had no issues navigating outside of that.
The graphics are on par with this genre of game. I have always had an affinity for the Victorian setting and art-style which Layers of Fear pulls of well. Many of the psychological horror elements including hallucinations, chases, and hauntings fit well within the game’s framework. To create a successful ambient dread, a game must set the tone graphically and acoustically in this regard Layers of Fear does well.
There are many transitions in the game which support his psychological trip. From second takes, to loss of gravity, deterioration, and fading. All of these methods used are top notch and really support the theme. Very few horror movies pull off these visual spectacles as well as Layers of Fear does.
I did have a few issues with visual light clipping through some doors while they were closed and one instance where a hallway did not light up in a pure dark environment causing me to reload the game to cause it to work. Otherwise there were not many glitches in this arena.
The sound is an integral function in Layers of Fear. Each limp you take through the house on hardwood floors or cabinet you open reminds you of the solemn haunting and only serves to exacerbate more adrenaline fueled moments. Creepy noises are abound in the mansion and they are not only beautifully recorded and believable but they are also timed exceptionally well. The particular arrangement of these sounds can’t be understated as timing is important in any horror game.
The music in the game was probably my favorite part. Melancholy tones set the atmosphere just when they needed to and they were supplemented by violent crescendos and other apt effects when the moment struck. Since the artists wife was a pianist, there are many melodies which play throughout the artists nightmare which are integrative in nature and feel like weave their own life into the narrative.
The music was composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski and I believe this is my first time listening to one of his scores. That being said, I will definitely look out for him in the future and try to explore some of his past work solely based on the aural story-telling done here. What highlights his performance apart within the game is that there are so few games in which musicians feel like they are part of the game making process. This is clearly not the case in layers of fear and some of the tracks almost feel that they have their own story to tell.
Overall Layers of Fear is a fun game to run through. Since it takes only 4-6 hours to complete, most of any issues I had like searching tedium really didn’t seem to matter. But the real gem to be found here is the overall narrative. It’s told with all of the elements possible within the game. Notes, sound, music, detail in design, art, and the artist’s own hallucinations. For camera driven exploration, this game clocks in at just the right length and has no problems telling the story in a succinct manner while leaving just enough for you fill in the blanks spots and form your own opinion as to why he did what he did.
I personally rate Layers of Fear a 3.9 out of 5 within it’s own genre. It is short, enjoyable, and to the point and spares no bells and whistles in it’s main job which is to tell a story with horror elements. Players of more action oriented games may not enjoy this, but anyone who loves horror movies or games, or enjoys psychological thrillers should definitely give it a go.