Layers of Fear 2 Review: Stunning Scenery But Seldomly Scary
Like its predecessor, Layers of Fear 2 delivers an unforgettable audiovisual experience, but it's similarly lacking in genuine scares. Due to the game's claustrophobic, nearly on-rails level design, rarely is there a sense of actual danger.
This ends up really hurting Layers of Fear 2 as a true horror title, though it does leave it as a memorably dark and psychedelic story worth unraveling.
Whereas the original Layers of Fear focused on an artist exploring an ever-shifting mansion, Bloober Team's sequel puts players aboard a huge cruise liner where they play the role of an unknown actor. The disembodied voice of Tony Todd of Candyman fame serves as the untrustworthy narrator in your head as players are left to solve puzzles and fall deeper into one of gaming's most gloriously twisted rabbit holes, all the while seeking to "build the character."
The visuals are unceasingly stunning as the game toys with your perception of reality in more ways than the already bizarre original did. Back in the developer's repertoire is a clever use of hallways that change when you look away, but this time their tricks go well beyond that to include other mind-bending effects like regularly rinsing the world of all colors, distorting your view to look like you're living in an old film, flipping your world completely upside-down, and using some supremely effective color palettes that make every room, every hallway, and every scene feel unique.
The audio complements the game's stunning visual style thanks to Bloober Team's spatial, binaural audio that puts players directly in the room (seriously, use headphones). Combined, the audiovisual experience in Layers of Fear 2 is nearly in a league of its own. I took more screenshots with this game than any other during a review period. There were simply so many sights and sounds worth stopping and appreciating. The art department deserves the highest praise.
All Flair, No Fear
All of this high praise makes Layers of Fear 2 a marvelously designed game in some respects, but it fails to make it a scary one. Whereas the first game was more like a horror museum, leaving players safe virtually from start to finish, Layers of Fear 2 plays more like a haunted house attraction one may find around Halloween season. It can be spooky, but it fails to ever immerse players enough to get them to forget the "rules" of engagement. They can't touch you, it's all staged. You're going to be fine.
Layers of Fear 2 is sadly just like that. Even as this time around several fail states can be attained and there are many chase sequences, the game has a way of telegraphing precisely where you need to go to a fault. Whereas the environments can regularly be so disorienting, the game somehow abandons that sense when the pressure is really on and you're being pursued by a shapeless monster. Horror thrives on vulnerability, and Layers of Fear 2 never allows players to feel vulnerable.
A World Like No Other
The other major tentpole of the game is its puzzles. As this is more horror-adventure than survival-horror, the designers would be remiss not to slow players down with countless brainteasers. For the same reasons the horror moments fall flat, the puzzles actually succeed greatly. You'll always know you're in the right area to solve a puzzle, which eliminates aimless wandering and keeps the pacing perfectly in order.
The puzzles can range from things like finding a lock code to imitating shadows on the wall and much more. They hardly ever repeat, and like the environments, when they are reused, they're presented so differently that they may as well be something new. They're explained just enough to a keen eye without ever feeling too easy or too difficult. It’s detail-oriented and built to support the game's often quite meta theme of the price of creation.
Still Worth Its Admission Price
There's still an audience for Layers of Fear 2 despite its scare factor shortcomings because of not just the aforementioned stellar sound and visuals and enjoyable puzzles, but also the story.
Again, like its predecessor, Layers of Fear 2 happily obfuscates what exactly is going on up to, and even in some respects, past the end credits. Mired in metaphor, shrouded in symbolism, Layers of Fear 2 goes for a sort of high concept art derangement and once again nails it, even more so than its predecessor, in fact.
How much you understand the deliberately vague story will largely depend on how much you involve yourself in the game's many collectible pick-ups which flesh out the world that existed before your arrival. There are also many homages to past film icons, so even while it's not so scary itself, Layers of Fear 2 does proudly stand on the shoulders of giants such as Nosferatu, The Shining, and even The Wizard of Oz. The story cleverly ties in these subtler nods so they never feel invasive and actually feel like relevant supplementary material.
No horror game is quite like this one, and while it's sadly underwhelming as a scare tool, it is salvaged by its use of horror concepts and imagery to tell a terrific human story.
- Superb audio and visual design
- Puzzles that feel challenging, but never obtuse
- A story worth decoding which spills out in metaphor
- Scares fall flat by feeling too scripted
In the end, Layers of Fear 2 improves on the original in every way, even including its scare factor. But better doesn't always mean good. The scripted claustrophobic scenes of the game make for an awesomely immersive experience — until you have to run from the monster and the game turns to a simple bout of trial-and-error.
Layers of Fear 2 uses horror imagery and themes to tell a story that feels horror-adjacent but is ultimately more concerned, for better or worse, with telling a metaphor-heavy story about creation and destruction. It's gorgeous and memorable in several ways, but fails to elicit more than a single actual layer of fear.
[Note: A copy of Layers of Fear 2 was provided by Bloober Team for the purpose of this review.]