Developed by Bloober Team, Layers of Fear is a haunting journey about a painter tormented by his past and his failures.
An Introduction Into Fear
Set in the backdrop of an old Victorian home, Layers of fear puts you in control of a painter returning home from some unknown location. It is quiet, aside from the distant sounds of rain and thunder.
Your only clues are notes left all over the house indicating that there is someone who works tirelessly in the house. These notes come from someone who seems to care for the man, only known as Sir. It is implied that these notes are about you, the painter. As you begin to explore the house you begin to notice things do are not as they appear to be, and you get the feeling that something is watching you.
It’s All About the Atmosphere
When you begin the game a message appears letting you know that the game is best experienced when playing with headphones. I did not choose to do so, but after playing it through I can understand why they would recommend it. At first, I thought it was just because of the inevitable jumps scares, but now I think it was more than that. They want you to truly experience the journey through the painter’s eyes, and in order to do so they want you enveloped into the world they have created as much as possible. Layers of Fear is less like a game and more of an experience.
Free to Explore
One of the great things about this game is that it doesn’t hold your hand, at all. There is no tutorial, you’re just plopped at the front door of the house and allowed to explore as you see fit. This gives you the illusion of having control, but the game is formatted almost like a ride. There’s a predetermined path to follow, so really your only choice is how quickly you get there. Items you can interact with have a hand icon appear over them. These are usually drawers and doors, but there are a few interactable secrets hidden throughout your journey.
This seems great at first because each room is filled with drawers and closets to explore, but the downside is that there’s not much in them. Sure, you’ll find clothes, knick-knacks, and other typical items. However, none of it amounts to anything with a few collectibles hidden here and there. I felt a little cheated out of my time and eventually stopped searching most places I came across.
Because of this, it can sometimes feel like you’re going the wrong way or missing something. As stated before, this game is basically a guided horror ride. To help you along your journey the game lets you know you’ve taken a wrong turn. Usually right before something trippy was about to happen.
Gotta Collect Them All… Or Not
Your only form of guidance are the notes strewn about as well as collectibles known as “whispers.” On the PS4, you can hear actual whispers emitted from the PS4 controller whenever you are close to one of these collectibles. They take on various forms of items from the painter’s past, and they provide you with his backstory. Depending on which ones you collect, determines how the game will end for you. Therefore, it pays off to ignore some of the whispers, depending on which ending you’re aiming for.
The main collectibles are separated by chapters. Each one adds another layer to the portrait you are working on, and you come to find out that these are no ordinary painting materials.
The only frustrating part is that there’s no indication of which ones progress the story and which ones will determine the outcome. They’re all randomly placed, and some of them are easily missed. However, I believe this was purposely done to encourage replayability. Part of the fun, for some gamers, is solving the puzzle multiple times to see where it takes them.
A Different Path, A Different Ending
Before the game begins, you are told that what happens is entirely up to you. While your journey may be predetermined, the destination is not. There are three possible endings to unlock, and your actions throughout determine which one you’ll see. This creates replayability and makes you want to go back and see what you missed the first time. I recommend playing through the first time completely blind.
Some doors are meant to stay closed, and opening one too soon can change the outcome of the game. There were multiple times I was torn about which path to take only to find that each one would have progressed me differently.
Death Is Temporary
Like most games, it is possible to die in Layers of Fear. Although it’s not blatantly clear, running into one of the entities in the game will cause you to “die”. However, the transition is so smooth that it seems like it was supposed to happen. Whenever I would die, everything would fade to black and when I opened my eyes I would be groggily getting off the floor in a completely different room.
However, it is entirely possible to die, and doing so will alter the ending that you receive. In short, if you see a creepy doll girl or a disfigured woman, run.
Losing Your Mind
The greatest part of Layers of Fear is the visuals. Reminiscent of 2002’s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, this game loves to mess with your mind. The entire game takes place inside the house, but as you open doors they’ll lead you to, seemingly, random areas. At points, some of the locations look the same. However, things will start to warp and decay as you continue to explore.
In the video above, I was walking through a dark hallway. There was a point where I came across a window which showed the outside of the room. When I turned to walk away I instead walked into the room that I was staring into previously. As you continue your journey, this happens more frequently and the distortion of the house gets worse. This all starts to make sense the more you piece the story together.
A Story of Grief and Madness
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
As you progress through the story, you find out that you are a great painter that married a beautiful pianist. The two of you got married, had a daughter, and even got a family dog. Things were going great until you began to struggle with the noise around you. Because of this, you began to drink, which lead to you doing some gruesome things such as lashing out at your wife and having a hand in your dog’s death. It is heavily implied that aside from suffering from alcoholism, you also suffer from some sort of delusional mental disorder such as Schizophrenia.
Your wife left you, which only caused you to spiral even more out of control with your drinking. At some point, you receive a call about your wife being caught in a fire that left her disfigured. In an attempt to make things right, you bring her and your daughter back to live with you. However, because of the continued drinking, you continue to neglect your family. This causes your wife to commit suicide. This drives you over the edge, and you decide to make use of her body. Her hair becomes paint brushes, her skin is your easel, her blood is the overlay, her bones are the paint,
This is where our journey begins, and what the main goal of each segment becomes. We’re trying to complete our “magnum opus,” our greatest work yet.
As stated earlier, this is probably one of the stronger aspects of the game. At times, it felt as though the surroundings were becoming too mundane since you continuously explore the same areas of the house, almost in a loop. However, as you progress things become more and more distorted. The lighting plays a huge role in the experience and can take something as innocent as a child’s bedroom and twist it into something sinister.
However, in their attempt to make things eerie, I felt like the developers made certain parts of the game way too dark. Maybe it was intentional, but after a while wandering through dark corridors felt more like an annoyance than scary. The game engine looks beautiful on the PS4, but it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see. This is also why they suggest playing the game with the lights out, but every game should be playable in any light setting, in my opinion. I understand trying to create an atmosphere for the player, but it should be a suggestion, not forced.
This was another strength for Layers of Fear. The soundtrack, like the game, is hauntingly beautiful. It was created by Polish musician Arkadiusz Reikowski. Each song had an eeriness about it while having sad undertones. It really adds to the experience and leaves you wondering what truly happened within the walls of the manor you’re exploring.
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A downside, for me, was the “jump scare” sound effects. Instead of utilizing loud instrumentals, the developers also chose to implement high pitched screeches for added effect. Personally, I found these to be less jarring or frightening and more annoying. This was mostly because they lingered, instead of just occuring and then fading out. This made me glad that I wasn’t playing with headphones, otherwise I feel like it may have hurt my ears.
Fear And Beauty
At the end of the day, Layers of Fear is more than just another horror game. While it does have some of the same aspects of games like Resident Evil 7 and the Silent Hills: P.T. demo, it strays from the typical horror tropes and focuses more on the psychological aspect. Walls contorted, objects melted, pieces of the surroundings just floated away. It causes you to take a moment and gather your bearings again.
I didn’t find the journey scary as much as I found it to be incredibly sad. The tale of the painter and his wife is tragic and, in the end, I felt a great sense of sympathy for them. The game takes place some time in the 1960’s when mental health still wasn’t fully understood. The developers did a great job showcasing this sort of tragic reality without demonizing people who suffer from mental illnesses.
If you enjoy psychological thrillers, Layers of Fear is something you may enjoy. It forces you to take your time and really get to know the people who lived in that house. However, those who want something more active and exciting might find the pace of the game too slow for them. Regardless, I really recommend giving it a try and enjoying the ride. Layers of Fear is available on Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.