We all have that one person in our lives that can’t leave well enough alone. The one that has to stratify the pile of business cards at the dentist or gets emotionally involved with bank-fresh notes. Yeah, you know the person. Perfectionism is certainly both a gift and a curse and Layers of Fear is an intriguing dive into its intricacies and extremes in both senses of the word. The world around you is unravelling before your eyes, so, what’s the first thing you decide to do? Finish your masterpiece, but of course.
Layers of Fear is locked within the belly of an old Victorian mansion, the only location you’ll be seeing. It matches the gothic, horror vibe admirably and never feels small, even with its claustrophobic corridors. These quaint rooms and looming hallways provide the perfect playground for the very basic amount of interactivity at hand, your focus is on your surroundings and their mischief, rather than what you can do with them. This is a walking simulator at heart and those yet to be convinced by the genre may be put off by the reduced mechanics, but it’s honestly not necessary here, not one bit. This focus on environment exposes the level of detail that can be found in each and every room and this helps Layers of Fear really shine in all the places that it counts.
With such splendid, yet claustrophobic environments, the game can set to work on your mind as you wander the halls. You’re unable to die in Layers of Fear but that doesn’t mean for one second it won’t feel like you’re close to death. It certainly draws on more than a handful of clichés, dipping incessantly into the horror tricks of old and throwing them at you without sense or purpose. Gothic literary classics such as Dorian Gray are played upon heavily, their influences splashed as abusively on the walls as the many streaks of paint themselves. It derives from the fear factor a touch on occasion, but is handled well enough to not be a joke at least.
A Mind Beyond Repair
The protagonist is in a bit of a state, suffering from debilitating and infuriating schizophrenia alongside an evident alcohol problem. The viewpoint you’ll experience while playing eerily manages to portray this with unnerving accuracy. The rooms around you will warp and skew, sometimes flipping entirely, as you survey an environment or move about within it. Making movement itself have a reaction means even the most basic of inputs sparks new waves of tension. Layers of Fear is devilishly unpredictable at all the right times and knows what you’ve come to expect in a horror game. It’ll play up to these assumptions right until you’re feeling one step ahead, by then it’s too late and the sweating fits start all over again.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the Unity engine is the foundation of choice here and therefore, much like our Firewatch review, Layers of Fear is a little bit troublesome on the PS4. Despite the wide-open woodland in Wyoming being left behind for the intimidating corridors of an old mansion, the frame rate will consistently buckle under the weight of particular busy rooms. This really does reduce enjoyment in some of Layers of Fear’s grandest moments and is especially unforgivable in a title that leans so heavily on ambiance and feel.
Layers of Hills
Layers of Fear has garnered many comparisons; most notably of which is its apparent likeness to P.T, the blood-curdling sampler from the since deceased Silent Hills. Although quite the accolade, considering the critical acclaim surrounding the sampler, it’s a heavy torch to carry and doesn’t come without its negatives. Coming in at a healthy five-hour shuffle, Layers of Fear only manages to touch the levels of horror found in the short-lived sampler on a handful of occasions. There’s not enough under the skin here (ironic, when the title is considered), you start to dig deeper and you’re met by questionable writing and a downright chaotic story to match.
It attempts organized chaos to disrupt and confuse, a constant mission to leave you in the gloom, alone and unaware of what twisted and probably bloodstained card Layers of Fear is planning to play next. As aforementioned, the attention to detail is great, from the collection of eclectic objects in each room to the fantastic gait the protagonists possess, bobbing the camera in a unique and slightly disorientating manner that feels right at home in the tight corridors of this sublime mansion environment. While chaos will appear to be the topic of conversation here, it’s not the main feeling in question. That award goes to anxiety. Pure, unaltered anxiety. Turn around and the doorway might seal shut, look up and the floor has changed. The game isn’t ever going to kill you, but it’ll consistently remind you it has the power to do so, the apparent invulnerability counting for jack when you’re regularly considering a fresh pair of undies.
What Layers of Fear lacks in complexity, it more than makes up for with atmosphere. It’s a bizarre and thrilling ride that doesn’t even considering letting up as you traverse a truly broken mind. The concept is incredibly novel and well portrayed, the wellbeing of your limping vessel never coming into debate as he works on his masterpiece. It’s just a shame that, even with all the literary influences, the phenomenal and thought-provoking ambience isn’t backed up by the writing or voice work that can both feel flat and uninspired more often than not. The dodgy frame rate that’s becoming depressingly synonymous with Unity on PS4 adds to the issues here and pushes it that bit further away from truly hitting the mark P.T seems to dominate, even if it’s now starting to pass into gaming mythology.
Layers of Fear review copy provided by publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.