Operating in the horror genre is tough. Like other mediums of entertainment, you want to engage your audience but the very basis of horror – to instill fear – is a difficult task to achieve. To that end, many of the most well-known tropes and horror styles throughout the years have been cultivated, replicated, honed and further developed. At times, horror can rely on loud noises and quick jumps to scare the audience. At other times, intense bloodshed and otherworldly phenomenon can get the job done. However, perhaps the most effective tool of horror is the fear of the unknown and it’s something that Layers of Fear excels at, even in its early access state.
Check out over 50 minutes of gameplay footage from Layers of Fear.
"Much akin to the proverbial trip down the rabbit hole, Layers of Fear feels like a disorienting journey into a realm of nightmares untold."
Layers of Fear has been developed by Bloober Team, who most will probably remember for Basement Crawl, a sub-par PS4 action game that was routinely criticized when it released in 2014. The two games couldn’t be any more different though. Layers of Fear has you in the role of a painter who is obsessed with crafting the perfect masterpiece. In a nod to the unknown and respecting the player’s intelligence, Layers of Fear doesn’t lay the story on thick. You’ll enter the painter’s house, which appears 19th century in scope and aesthetic style, and read through various notes spread across the house.
From these notes, the player learns that this once brilliant painter has fallen upon hard times…and it doesn’t take long before you learn that everything isn’t quite right with our man. What is this masterpiece he’s trying so hard to create? Is he going mad? What’s become of the man’s wife? The phantasmagoric traipse begins here and never quite lets up in its tone and intensity. The house itself seems to be tearing apart at the seams, reflecting the mental state of the painter. Or perhaps something in the house is pushing back against him?
Like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you’ll walk around opening doors, lighting candles, triggering events and deciphering light puzzles, all in an effort to piece together the horrors that have occurred in the house. The house’s dimensions keep shifting – that door that led to the staircase and living room now takes you down a hall. The same living room may be buried in apples when you next visit it. Secret passages and trap doors open up and at one point, there’s even an elevator which takes you up several floors. Much akin to the proverbial trip down the rabbit hole, Layers of Fear feels like a disorienting journey into a realm of nightmares untold.
"Splotches of paint and melting paintings are a regular sight but wait till you see some of the lighting that Layers of Fear implements."
Of course, in hindsight, there isn’t too much to do in the game aside from exploring your immediate vicinity or taking in the creepy atmosphere. In this respect, Layers of Fear is actually triumphant in not cramming any unwanted elements that may impede the narrative unfolding. In terms of scares, it’s amazing to note the pacing and overall effectiveness of each one.
There aren’t creepy ghosts roaming the hallways (at first) but you’ll be surprised by the door in front of you slamming shut, a woman suddenly bursting out in tears or the sight of a baby doll strung across a deer wall mount’s antlers. The atmosphere is creepy at all times, especially in those moments when you’re faced with absolute darkness and struggle to find the nearest light source. Bloober Team even went to the extent of adding more rooms just to pace its scares better and it works wonders.
Developed with Unity, it’s hard to believe that Layers of Fear is still an early access game. There are some very minor performance hiccups here and there but the game ran very smoothly on my Intel Core i5-4440 and GeForce GTX 660 at high settings and 1920×1080 resolution. The art style itself represents strong attention to detail without beating you over the head with the creepiness. It’s all for the sake of making you believe that you are the painter that’s going mad, rather than a passive player who is watching the story unfold before you. Splotches of paint and melting paintings are a regular sight but wait till you see some of the lighting that Layers of Fear implements. This isn’t just for aesthetic purpose either as you struggle to navigate a kitchen of sorts through the very dim lights in front of you.
"While it’s an incredibly effective horror game – perhaps one of the better ones in years – Layers of Fear as a narrative experience is just worth experiencing."
As for the sound, it’s very good in actually immersing you in the environment. You’ll hear broken glasses crinkling underneath and the sound of a running faucet that actually changes in intensity depending on which direction you face. It’s all the more incredible when the scares are happening as Bloober Team has the right mix of bone-chilling crescendos and sudden thumps.
At the end of the day, it’s not the gameplay model or perspective that should sell you on Layers of Fear. It’s about the sheer sensation of facing the unknown in the mind of a man quickly losing it while attempting to piece together what’s happening in front of you. While it’s an incredibly effective horror game – perhaps one of the better ones in years – Layers of Fear as a story is just worth experiencing. And with the level of polish and stability that the developer has implemented, it’s hard to believe that Layers of Fear hasn’t commercially released yet. If you’re a horror buff seeking a new fix, then Layers of Fear is definitely worth a look but it’s worth looking into for anyone who enjoys a well-told, albeit gruesome and psychologically terrifying, adventure.