Layers of Fear was a surprise from Bloober Team, a developer with quite the history. Needless to say, nobody expected them come out with a first-person psychological horror title after their psuedo-horror Bomberman clone (and all of the drama surrounding that development). The first Layers of Fear dove into the deranged mind of an artist as he spiraled out of control and into madness. The sequel plays up that idea, this time peeling back the layers in the mental state of an actor as he explores his past, present, and potential futures.
Having an actor as the central protagonist allows the themes of Layers of Fear 2 to revolve around films. Many classic films, both horror and otherwise, are referenced throughout the game in little ways. The carpet of one area may recall the hotel floors in The Shining. Se7en has its horrific deadly sins murder scenes recreated in one extended sequence. Fight Club gets a nod in New Game+ (which brilliantly has some different sequences to make the game worth playing through multiple times). Psycho. Wizard of Oz. The list goes on. Some references are plainly obvious, while others may be more, ahem, layered allusions to the films in question.
The main setting in Layers of Fear 2 is an enormous early 1900s era passenger ship, but your twisting mental state won’t keep you there. You’ll weave through warped houses, walled gardens, and other creepy environments as you peel through the layers of this actor’s mind. An eerie disembodied voice known only as “The Director,” played by Candyman’s Tony Todd. At certain junctures, you’ll be directed to either heed his direction or rebel and go your own way. It quickly becomes clear that this actor has some demons from his past that continue to haunt him, and returning to a massive ship to film his latest role is unearthing the skeletons in the closet.
My biggest problem with this multilayered approach was the overt ambiguity and lack of real connective tissue between the layers. I understand that a narrative like this is a mystery for the player to solve. I’m a smart person. I don’t want it handed to me on a silver platter. But while I managed to pick up on the general story threads that were being woven, there wasn’t really an “aha” moment where I connected the dots. Layers of Fear 2 might dive through layers and references, weaving in and out of time, but it can feel like reading a book completely out of order with a bunch of pages torn out. If the narrative is supposed to be about coming to grips with the demons of the past, I rarely felt like I understood them enough for the psychological horror to be emotionally impactful. I would have loved to see a better balance between that creepy ambiguity and actual reveals that drive the narrative threads.
Layers of Fear 2 Review – Manifesting Psychological Horror
Where psychological horror often tends to go awry is when the horror isn’t psychological anymore. When it manifests as something physical or an exploitable game mechanic, it starts to peel back the layers of fear and reveal an inner core that’s not so scary. Layers of Fear 2 has plenty of those psychological moments as it upends what you think you know. Venture through one door to find it vanished when you turn around. A flash of movement out of the corner of your eye that you aren’t quite sure actually happened. Mannequins that only move when your back is turned. This is psychological horror that messes with you mentally.
But once again, psychological horror is significantly diluted when you manifest the fear as something physical or tangible. When you remind players that this is just a game. Any time the “formless beast” would ironically take form and chase me down, I rarely felt fear or dread, except at the possibility of yet another game over screen because I got stuck in a corner. There were far too many of these moments that cheapened the existential weight. It would take the possibility of something bad happening and make it happen, which reduced its impact each and every time it was made manifest.
Often the sudden emergence of the beast would leave me no room to react, resulting in a death or two before I figured out I had to slow down, take a different turn, or run away. Each try and fail made the moment less scary, less intense, and more about figuring out how to play the mechanics of the game, which in turn killed the immersion. By giving my fear an exploitable weakness, its power over me was rendered inert. Games like these need to decide if they want to tell a gripping psychologically horrifying tale, or if they want to lean on “video gamey” segments of skill and fail states. Trying to do both ultimately hinders the ability of either to perform at their best. Layers of Fear 2 does its psychological horror well enough when it’s not trying to force players into a “game over” screen.
I have to give extensive praise to Layers of Fear 2’s audio design though. Playing with headphones, the binaural audio drives that feeling of tension and dread. Whispers behind closed doors feel like they are right there. The sounds of the creaking ship bring the environment to life. There’s a level of immersion that you just don’t get from most games, and I often felt that I was transported right into my TV screen. The audio alone helped to elevate some of the more lackluster parts of the game, and I can imagine that the experience might be soured by playing without headphones or with the audio turned down. If you want the full impact of Layers of Fear 2, make sure you experience the binaural audio using a pair of headphones.
Layers of Fear 2 excels in many aspects of psychological horror, but it also undermines itself. While it creates many layers of fear, there’s little connective tissue between them to make the narrative coherent enough to engage with. Overly video-gamey segments reveal the mechanics underneath, removing the tension in favor of fail states and cheap game over screens. However, its binaural audio and moments of reality-warping terror do wonders to instill a sense of unease in the player. It’s worth peeling back the layers in Layers of Fear 2 for all of the moments that don’t rely on the old horror tropes, but this journey into madness falls just short of being a pleasure cruise.
Layers of Fear 2 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.