Title: Layers of Fear
Platform: Xbox One / Steam / PS4 (Reviewed on Xbox One)
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Release date: Out now, £15 / $20 / €20 (And worth every penny.)
TL;DR: Alcoholic artist has some worrying inner demons and a scary wife.
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I will start this review off by stating that I am generally a bit of a coward when it comes to horror games. I have never managed to get past the dog corridor in Resident Evil and The Last of Us left me with some psychological damage. Now that’s out of the way, you’ll be happy to know that I actually managed to complete Layers of Fear in one sitting, and only had the life scared out of me numerous times.
I knew this game was of the horror genre before I booted it up and was already on high-scare alert. The game starts off with you wandering around for a little while, just exploring, until you find a prompt to go to a certain location, and this is where the weird starts. Naturally, the story makes you go into a creepy-looking basement; your hackles are raised, your eyes are wide and your pulse is racing, which then becomes your standard state for the remainder of the game.
There is actually zero combat in Layers of Fear. Your only weapons are your (limited) free will and your powers of deduction, as there are quite a few puzzles standing between you and progression of the story. For me, the lack of combat is equally comforting and unnerving. If I cannot fight back, then there cannot be any threats, surely, but that never stopped P.T from throwing some violence at you, now did it? The first thing I noticed about my character was that they seemed to have a limp, which lead me to believe there would be no chase sequences, which was fine by me, but with a lack of chase sequences normally comes a lot of jump-scares. The controls are straightforward: move and interact, with the occasional need to hold the interaction button whilst moving, in order to open cupboards, drawers and doors. As someone who has never really played a game with movement mechanics like this, I found it clunky and cumbersome and it felt like it was definitely more suited to PC controls than an Xbox controller. That aside, I got used to it fairly quickly.
Puzzles are neutral ground for me – I don’t excel at them, nor do I struggle massively, but there were definitely moments in this game where I was left frustrated and had to look up help. At one point you have to find a number to dial on a telephone. I wandered around for a good five minutes looking for a set of eleven digits, only to find that the phone only needed three. Eventually, I found the number and continued on, mildly annoyed. Later on in the game I had to open a safe, which I could not for the life of me do. Eventually after some random button pushing, the safe opened only for the game to crash and lose the last five minutes of play time. This time, after failing for five minutes to open the safe, I had to look up where to find the code, ruining some of the experience for me. Combine this with some aimless wandering to find some extremely tiny objects in order to trigger the next set of events, and you have an annoyed player. Thankfully, these were the only moments that wore on my patience and did not take away from the feel of the game for too long.
As you wander around the house (guided by the locked doors and tight corridors), snippets of information are relayed through notes left around and voice overs from different characters that slowly add up to paint a picture of the story. The house belongs to an artist, his wife, and their child. It is very clear from the off that the artist has some problems with alcohol, from all the bottles of wine (some intact, others smashed) dotted around the home. The story starts off as something innocent enough, with the artist being absorbed into his work and the wife asking for more quality time together, but as the story progresses, the insights get more disturbing. Without giving too much of the story away, it becomes startlingly obvious that something dreadful has happened to one or more members of the family and it is taking its toll on them all in various ways.
According to a little post-play research, there are multiple endings to Layers of Fear that change depending on how you deal with certain situations and what decisions you make. As for my ending, I can safely assume that it was “bad”. There are “levels” to this game that end upon finding a certain item and making your way back to the artist’s studio (whether you want to or not), and each time you finish a level the painting in the centre of the room is updated to reflect some of your choices, getting more and more disturbing with the addition of each item. After witnessing the final painting from my playthrough, and seeing pictures from others’ playthroughs, I can safely say that it does change depending on what you do.
Visually, this game is superb. It takes place in an old house, presumably in the late 19th century (please don’t quote me on that – I’m no historian), with rich decor, plenty of reception rooms and vast quantities of paintings. Despite the re-use of many of the same paintings, the immersion was thorough and I felt like this was a convincing house. That is, until the hallucinations started. The innocent corridors would lead to locked doors and would change when turning around. You could walk through one door into a dead-end room and exit by the same door into a completely different room than before. Paintings would be inconsequential one minute and horribly disfigured the next. Books would fly off shelves, chairs would float and creepy, demon porcelain dolls would appear when you weren’t looking. I genuinely felt a deep unease whenever I was faced with a door to open, not knowing what would be on the other side.
If you want an atmospheric game with an ambiguous story (I still don’t know what actually happened), then Layers of Fear is definitely for you. This beautiful game got under my skin and left me wanting more. I need to know why the artist ranted on and on about the “vermin”. I want to know what the fire was about. I want to know who the person I played as was and why they had a limp. I want to know why my painting looked the way it did at the end and what I could have done to change the outcome. Although some may have been bothered by the inconclusive events and ending, I thought it was a clever way to incite discussions with other players, and potentially lead to you playing again in order to figure out the whole story. There is definite replayability with this game and it is both interesting to play and watch others play (I’m looking at you, PewDiePie), in order to see how each person reacts and what paths they take. A standard run can take between two and a half to three hours, with the ability to have a few different playthroughs, so this game is very good value at £16 for the Xbox One or PS4 versions and £15 for the Steam version. My verdict? Brilliant horror that scared the crap out of me.
- Beautiful art-style
- Unique story
- A few annoying puzzles
- Console players may need to get used to controls
- Should come with a spare set of underwear
Layers of Fear has a PEGI 16 rating for bad language. I honestly don’t think bad language is the most worrying thing about this game. I think having your child coming into your bedroom at night, crying about the moving paintings and creepy dolls in the corner of the bedroom is definitely reason enough to not let them play this game.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by Xbox UK.