Where to even begin with Layers of Fear.
Maybe I should start with the menacing mansion, filled with looming paintings of upsetting imagery. Maybe I should start with the superfluous use of baby dolls that silently move about the rooms every time you turn your back to them. Or maybe I should start by telling you about how the rats will nibble away at your sanity and leave you shivering in fear, exposed for the true horrors of the game to take full advantage of your broken spirit…
Layers of Fear does not mess around. This game is serious business, and if played correctly, it can completly freak you out.
While being alone(?) in a large, abandoned mansion is hardly an original setting for a horror game, Bloober Team utilizes elements in creative enough ways that troupes that would otherwise fall flat are delivered with frightening potency all throughout the game. For example: the sound of a beating heart. So many horror games utilize this sound effect to cheaply increase the tension of a particular moment. In Layers of Fear the sound of a beating heart can be heard all throughout the game, but the sound isn’t coming from the protagonist’s heart, but from his gait.
The protagonist of Layers of Fear lost his leg but gets around well enough with a crude prosthetic leg and a hefty limp. That uneven footfall (thump-thump…thump-thump) is the source of the beating heart sound effect. The faster you move, like if you’re quickly trying to get away from something, the faster he walks and the faster the “heart” beats.
This is just one example of the many subtle touches that Bloober Team has embedded into Layers of Fear that take well-worn elements and transform it into an excitingly fresh experience.
What is important, and almost a responsibility of the player, is that Layers of Fear be played under certain conditions. Namely, play the game in the dark and with a headset or ear buds. Of course the game can be played in the middle of the day with cheap desktop speakers, but the vast majority of what makes Layers of Fear great requires the player to get lost in the moment as they trek deeper into the mansion.
I played the game with the aforementioned favorable conditions and I played the game for a little bit during the day. What I found was that Layers of Fear is very difficult to see during the daytime. Turning up the brightness helps to an extent, but it also whitewashes everything and clearly just isn’t how the game designers wished the player to experience the game. Simply put, if you want to get the most out of Layers of Fear, you need to play it in the dark.
As I made my way through the mansion and gradually unraveled the story, I took note of how confident Bloober Team was of their ability to frighten the player. While jump scares are definitely utilized, they’re not solely relied on and I’m happy to say that they were probably the most infrequent scare of the game. For clarification, jump scares, in my opinion, are unavoidable moments that the game forces something in your face. Audio cues were often used to spark fear, but only a few times was I smacked with a true jump scare.
What frightened me the most is how quick the game was changing on me. Usually in games, right before something big happens the game will chug just a little as the framerate drops while all the assets are loaded in. Not in Layers of Fear. I have to give credit to the developers, the game would load things frighteningly fast, literally in the blink of an eye.
I would walk through one door, realize it led to a dead end, turn around to open the door again, and the door was gone. I’d quickly spin back around to face the empty room to see that the room was completely gone and I was looking down a hallway that wasn’t there mere seconds ago. Other times I’d walk around a corner, realize I have been walking in circles, turn around, and be looking at a completely different hallway, quickly turn back around the way I was originally heading and see that it was now a dead end.
Mysteriously appearing rooms and hallways were one thing. The paintings though…the paintings were the creepiest…
It may seem like Layers of Fear is the sort of game where you play through it once and see it all in one go. That is not the case at all. While you may get many of the same key-to-the-story experiences, the mansion is so sprawling that there were countless rooms I went through on my first playthrough that I did not encounter on my second, and vice versa. There are also lots of little items to collect that reveal more and more about the story, some of which you may not uncover on your first trek through the game.
The name Layers of Fear works in two ways. The obvious way is a reference to the fact that paintings are painted in layers, with each layer of paint serving a purpose that collectively with other layers creates the full image, much like how a baby doll isn’t scary on its own without the lightning, thunder, flickering lights, and the sobs of the unseen. However, as I made my way through the mansion, room by room, I realized the title also describes the actual experience. Fear is an interesting concept, and it’s something that affects everyone, whether it’s a fear of rats, creepy dolls, or dizzying heights. As I made my way from room to room, the unique scares that each room presented gradually peeled away at my composure, gradually checking off each possible fear I could develop inside of the game. Eventually I was afraid to look at paintings, look out windows, turn on lamps, and I was absolutely terrified of turning around.
The longer I played the game, the more layers of composure were peeled away and the more vulnerable I felt. By the time the game ended (it’s a few hours long) I was a mentally exhausted twenty-six year old who slept with the closet light on that night.
- Excellent level/sound design
- Each room offers new scares
- Multiple ways through the game
- Jumpscares feel cheap