I returned to find my home in its usual state of disarray. Rats scurried underfoot, disappearing into cracks in the walls as I moved toward the staircase. Papers and books lay spread over the the dining table, lit candles flickering nearby with each whistling breeze which cut through our decaying home. I blinked, my eyes barely adjusted to the dim lighting before a noise beckoned me from the kitchen — and what I saw next was bloodchilling. This is Layers of Fear.
The cancellation of Silent Hills incurred horrified gasps from the gaming community, but its legacy lives on in many new titles inspired by the P.T. demo. Layers of Fear is one such game — a first-person experience meant to instill terror in the player — but sets itself apart with a flair and style deeply rooted in the Art world.
Taking your role as a troubled painter, you initially explore your home while finding loving notes left scattered from your wife. Moving from room-to-room, you soon start seeing signs of trouble. A broken wine bottle here, shattered mirrors all around, and portraits defaced without a second thought. Thus begins a subdued introduction based on the real-world nightmares of many husbands and wives… but things just get stranger from there.
Saying too much about the scare tactics and story would be a tremendous disservice to the game, as well as the effort put into it by developer Bloober Team. The studio’s meticulous attention to detail truly brings this world to life, and only serves to enhance the experience and subsequent moments of terror.
The graphics are overwhelmingly beautiful, most of all in its moments of intentional, glorious ugliness. Its color palette is wonderfully vibrant when the situation calls for it, and terribly unpleasant when showcasing rotted hardwood and sizzling, peeling paint. There is a bit of screen-tearing in the Xbox One version, along with spots of pixelation which may or may not have been part of an intended distortion effect. The framerate also dips from time to time, but it isn’t disruptive. On the whole there is very little to complain about — though Bob Ross would surely twitch at the sight of the game’s collection of disturbing paintings.
Above all else, Layers of Fear absolutely excels in its sound design. Hauntingly beautiful piano tunes highlight your infrequent downtime, while eardrum-splitting screams and garbled satanic murmurings send shivers down your spine. Even the most innocuous of sounds take on inexplicably sinister tones, and trust me, you’ll never look at a ringing phone or a child’s doll the same way again.
The game’s most divisive feature will be the gameplay itself, especially if you go into this blind. As the nameless painter, your interaction with the world around you amounts to little more than simply walking, stopping to occasionally pick up an item or to turn a crank. You will never throw a punch or break a bottle over a demon’s head, nor are there any enemies to combat at all. You’re just a dude, alone in his house, having a very bad night.
In fact, there aren’t even any hide-and-seek mechanics, as featured in other horror titles like Outlast. You face each dreadful moment head-on, and very seldom are you given the option to avoid it — though such a rare occasion does occasionally crop up.
The circular nature of Layers of Fear is handled brilliantly as well. Connected corridors often merge into a dark, winding labyrinth — and the way out is often unclear, leading you right back where you started until a revelation strikes. At no point was I ever frustrated by this, although the same cannot be said of the game’s many puzzles. The majority of them are well thought-out and ingeniously presented, while others left me staring at the same note for fifteen minutes, hoping for a clue or sudden epiphany. This might have detracted from my final score, if not for the fact that the ones which plagued me most could be skipped entirely.
Every surprise and located note works in perfect harmony, all building up to a stunning climax. The manner in which this tale presents itself is nothing short of spectacular, given to you piece-by-piece. Objects of an apparent spiritual resonance put a bow on each chapter once found, allowing you to progress further while marching toward the end. If you question the length of this experience, fear not! Only those who knowingly sprint through this journey would dare complain. After taking my time to explore as much as possible during one playthrough, it took a respectable six hours to unravel the mystery — well worth the $19.99 asking price. Add to that the diverging paths, collectibles, and multiple endings ripe for replays, suddenly 20 bucks sounds like a steal. My money was well spent.
Not everyone will have my same experience, of course. This type of game, more so than others, is quite subjective. Being a lifelong fan of survival horror games that I deemed “more intense” than this “walking simulator,” I went into this expecting to remain stone-faced and calm at all times… but, man, I was just plain wrong. Considering the amount of enjoyment I received, my final score was decided upon instantly as the credits rolled.
THE VERDICT: 10 OUT OF 10
Layers of Fear will stay with me for a very long time, both for its well-planned scares as well as its amazing attention to detail. While Outlast failed to elicit anything more than a yawn, this one truly got under my skin like few games ever have. This title surprised me in every way imaginable, particularly because I formed a very specific opinion before playing. Try not to make that same mistake, and don’t be afraid to jump in — your decision to skip this one may very well haunt you.
Chris Cobb is an Associate Writer for MONG and can barely find his way out of his own home, let alone a digital house of horrors. When he isn’t bumping repeatedly into a doorframe, you can find him on Twitter and Youtube.