Layers Of Fear offers an effective, minimalist horror experience for genre fans
Previously covered in our look at promising early access titles while exploring the state of horror games in 2015, Layers Of Fear is finally arriving in a full release version for PC and PS4. As one of our most anticipated horror games of the year, we had very high hopes for this first-person title, and now it's finally time to discover if Bloober Team managed to create something that lives up to the hype.
Probably the biggest question mark surrounding Layers Of Fear was on the depth of the gameplay. Based on the story arc and main location of the game, the first layer of fear to peel back and face was that this would essentially be images accompanying a hallway walking simulator, rather than a full-fledged game.
To an extent that's actually a valid criticism, as the gameplay elements are minimalist, but frankly they don't really need to be any more advanced. Its true that there's no shooting or swinging, or even any jumping or crouching, but it took me a while to realize those elements weren't there on my first hour of playing because I didn't miss them.
Essentially we're dealing with horror along the lines of Outlast or Alien: Isolation, but with gameplay more inline with Soma. The majority of the game involves interacting with the environment and then piecing together the story based on newspaper clippings and voice overs.
Going even a further step towards the minimalist side than the recent crop of no-fighting horror games, Layers Of Fear not only provides no weapon to fight back, but even culls out the monster to run away from.
Rather than being scared by things chasing you, the dread on display here is a rising sense of claustrophobia and a realization you've done things you can't take back. Once a respected painter, things went very badly for the main character in both his personal and professional life, and the main arc of the game is discovering what led to this rapid descent.
There are of course plenty of jump scares, but overall the ratio of smashing/slamming/falling scares to a generally unsettling atmosphere is a satisfying one.
While I had no issues with the lack of picking up green herbs or gunning down zombies, there was one issue that drew me out of the story, and that's the odd juxtaposition of elements that puts a big question mark on the time period.
The architecture, furniture, and newspaper clippings all give the impression the game is taking place in the neighborhood of 100 or more years ago, while much of the dialog is delivered in a decidedly modern style that doesn't quite match.
The game covers a wide range of horror tropes – don't play if you are scared of dolls – and many of them will be familiar, while others are presented in more unique ways.
Since the environment essentially is the game, the developers managed to work some very effective moments in by making the house incredibly disorienting, and it becomes clear that you can't always trust what you see or what your brain is telling you.
One location in particular featuring a phone constantly ringing backwards in each loop of a hallway sticks out as an interesting mini “puzzle” that makes you as the player think about what to do for a moment rather than relying on standard gameplay elements of pressing a button or finding a key.
After completing each segment of the ever-changing mansion, your unnamed painter returns to his unfinished magnum opus, which contorts and twists to reveal new psychotic revelations. It's a hard hitting storytelling tool to have words and images come more into focus the further you reach, drawing you on to keep playing and figure out the mystery.
For a game so focused on artwork, it's really the music and sound effects that are the star of the show. When first booting up Layers Of Fear, you'll meet a screen telling you “for a better experience, we recommend using headphones,” and that is absolutely correct. Turn the lights off and pop those headphones on so you hear every creak, laugh, cry, and scratch behind you.
With a fairly short play time and minimalist controls, you are essentially directing the main character in an immersive movie, and if you go in realizing that's what you're getting, Layers Of Fear will be a very worthwhile experience.
If you prefer something action-oriented like Resident Evil or Dead Island, this indie gem probably won't be worth the buy. For fans of Soma or The Park, however, or anyone who spent way too long going down the endless corridors of PT, it's no question that Layers Of Fear will be a must-play.