In the opening moments of Layers of Fear you, a painter, stand in the doorway of a 19th Century homestead’s foyer, bathed in dull, flickering candlelight and wall-mounted lamps. The quiet is the most unnerving and unnatural thing you feel at this point. For a brief few minutes, during your exploration of the first couple of rooms in the house, things are about as close to normal as they will get over the next few hours. The true descent into madness begins the second you unveil a blank canvas in an artist’s workroom.
Until recently, horror in videogames has felt neutered, seemingly designed to match the gory excess and cheap scares of Hollywood’s procession of lazy remakes and recycled ‘evil vengeful presence’ stories from Asia. The resurgence of horror as a videogame genre has been predominantly down to indie developers simplifying the process and taking horror back to the basics whilst using the strength of interactivity to play on players fears in more cerebral ways instead of chucking body parts at them, something the mainstream looked to have finally harnessed with games like Alien Isolation and the now infamous P.T. demo. P.T. is in fact most relevant to discuss when considering horror’s current evolution, as its clever manipulation of perspective and disorientating world shifts are the backbone of a new breed of psychological horror-led games that play tricks with the player. Layers of Fear is one such game, and it’s a damn effective one at that.
The game takes place in one mansion-esque home, with you viewing the action from the eyes of the troubled painter, and sees you try to piece together the various clues of your surroundings to explain what significance a blank art canvas has to the mystery that permeates the halls of this creaking, gothic place. Sounds straightforward in practice, but early on, it becomes quite apparent that either the house itself is manifesting some terrible secrets, or they are merely disturbing hallucinations of your damaged mind. Each time you turn your head in Layers of Fear, you invite it to mess with something in the world while you’re not looking. Rooms change entirely, corridors loop endlessly, words are scrawled on walls, objects move unseen and paintings shift and change before your eyes. You never get to trust that the next time you turn around, something hasn’t changed, even subtly. The changes to rooms are often impressively clever sights to behold and designed in such a way that you never feel sure that you’re the one controlling things. Layers of Fear is never done messing with you.
The house is indeed the star of the game. From that opening lobby to every increasingly distorted room beyond, it evokes the typical haunted house setup in the regular design of it. The Unity engine has a bad reputation thanks to countless awful, lazy titles using it, but here it is at its best. Not overly showy, but solid and consistent enough to punch at a higher weight than expected. The use of real art pieces and artists tools around the place adds to the eccentric flavour of the unnamed protagonist’s home.
With Layers of Fear being an indie game (that’s only now coming out of Early Access on PC), that only makes the work done by the team at Blooper all the more impressive, they even circumvent some typical issues of repetitive scenery and objects by working them into the game’s psychological manipulation. Showing you similar objects and scenery time and again in similar places, but in odd,different ways, really selling that disorientating atmosphere by creating impossible rooms within a previously comfortable and normal one. The same tricks are used for including people in the game, often a weak point of first person titles such as this as budget means lower quality models breaking immersion. Instead Layers of Fear uses humanoid manifestations and shadows to once again push the feel of unreality in a realistic-looking world.
The earlier room transitions are smoothly done and you are given no clue they’re about to happen, but towards the end, the game started to stutter slightly whenever a change would take place, making it obvious something had changed. While not a massive problem by normal technical standards, it does impact the game’s particular brand of horror by pulling you out of the moment, vital for a game working with the psychological.
Elsewhere, the sound design is also effectively done. One particularly neat trick sees the DualShock 4’s speaker build to a crescendo of hushed voices when you near an object of importance. The creaking and groaning of the house are captured in a way that you always wonder if that’s all it is, and various thuds and crashes used to jolt you serve their purpose. Then there’s the music, a limited, yet haunting piano track that pops up several times stands out alongside a piece of chilling music found in one brilliantly creepy, trippy scene. The marriage of great game and sound design are key to ensuring Layers of Fear delivers on its promise of slow-burning, mind-melting horror for the majority of its five or so hours.
I say the majority because while Layers of Fear is a fantastic advert for a modern, mature horror game, it isn’t above using a cheap jump scare or two and during one chapter this gets dragged out a little too often, lessening the effect of them and generally serving as the weakest form of horror in the game. Obviously you need a payoff for rising tension at some point, but there are other times where the payoff is handled in a far more subtle manner and it works all the better for it. Happily, this doesn’t continue for too long and the game is allowed to get to its finale without descending into all out chaos for the sake of escalation.
Talking of the finale, it could cause a bit of a divide and/or debate. It’s not a twisty-turny shriekfest, as is the (il)logical conclusion to most modern horror of this type, and the ambiguity of it might rankle some, while others (like many have during Early Access) will speculate and throw theories around about the exact meaning of it all. Personally I found it refreshing to have a shred of mystery about it, leaving different interpretations to feel as valid as each other even now all the pieces are there. It ties into the central premise of insanity to have things unclear to the very end because even the protagonist isn’t sure of what is real.
What I’ve admired the most about Layers of Fear is that it managed to wrap me up in its atmosphere from the start and rarely did it loosen so much as a cold, bony finger of its grip on me until the end. I’m still contemplating it a day later, discussing theories and marvelling at the clever twisting of the environments Blooper have executed. I’ve not played a horror game quite as effective as this in some time. Your interaction with the house is as simple as opening doors, drawers and examining items, but like the best ‘walking simulators’, the real interactivity is discovering what’s around you and why. It even has replay value, as you go back through it again to see things with more informed eyes and gather more scraps from clues you might have missed first time out. I’ve deliberately skimped on story details because it really is best to go in dark on this, build your own opinions and theories on what did, and does occur. Layers of Fear is the kind of horror I want more of this generation. The type that goes out of its way to disorientate, manipulate and unnerve you at every turn without screaming it in your face. Long live the terror of the psychological.