Layers of Fear Review
Strangely enough, the chance for me to take on Layers of Fear as a review mirrored my experiences with the title. I'm not a "scary" fan. Check that: I'm not a "scary for the sake of scary" fan. I can enjoy a good thrill, but the ones that are designed solely to haunt your dreams aren't for me. So when the chance to review Layers of Fear came up, I was hoping someone else would jump on the code. But, everyone else on the team with an Xbox One was occupied, so it came down to me, and I trudged on. I like reviewing games outside of my comfort zone, anyways. It will either give me a new perspective on something I didn't know I'd like, allow an unbiased opinion, or fall into a predictable trope you see coming a mile away. No matter what, I feel it's for the best when a game is reviewed by someone who isn't a hardcore fan of a series or genre. But as I said, the game fell down this same path: I avoided it, pushed through, found myself disturbed, and then sadly found myself following through on expected tropes.
Layers of Fear has been buzzing about on the PC for a while. From what I've read, it came about in bits and pieces that were always well received. Now that the tale is complete, it has found it's way to consoles. In the game, you portray an artist, slowly but surely going insane. You find yourself in a Victorian style mansion late on a rainy night, alone, with nothing but a desire to complete your masterwork. The mansion is gloriously detailed, and interactive elements blend smoothly into the rest of the environment, making the whole thing feel very natural. I think the segmented release may have helped it originally, allowing the organic mystery to continue outside of the game on message boards and the like, also giving people time to marinate rather than give a "that's it?" attitude.
As dread isn't my favorite emotion, I did not go positively into the mansion. I was constantly waiting for something to come out and kill me. The game held back on this, though. As I explored the mansion, I kept coming across doors I was certian would hold something evil behind them, or items on tables I was sure I would pick up to find something try to grab it back. The interaction mechanic is somewhere solidly between intuitive and cumbersome: to open a door or drawer you have to hold down the right trigger then swing the analog stick as if you were moving the object. Coupled with a tiny aiming reticule and a bit too deliberate jerkiness to the analog sticks, the game feels as if part of the horror is the difficult controls, much like old Resident Evil "tank controls" kept you from easily dispatching enemies on purpose. Slowly but surely, I got the hang of it though, and proceeded to start the mystery: picking up scraps of paper that I couldn't decipher, staring at pictures that seemed to stare back, and overall wondering just what the heck I was doing here. The game lays the dread on thick: you are constantly on edge THINKING something is going to happen VERY SOON, yet the scares are rather far apart. Right after you check around that dark corner, peer over the edge of that solid, tall footboard on the bed, or wonder if that's water or blood on the hardwood floor and get used to the mundane is when they throw out a scare. Again, for me, not the best, but someone looking for a scary moment, it is drawn up perfectly.
The game's big hook, unfortunately, has turned into a bit of a turn-off for me. There's a point very early in the game where you finally make it to your workroom, a nice fresh canvas awaiting you. On your way to look for your materials, the mansion changes in front of your eyes. Go through a door, around a corner, or sometimes simply turn around, and you'll find your surroundings have changed. While unique (and technically very well done), this translates to a straight-up guided tour of madness. Sure, there are a scant few places where there are branching paths, but the game does boil down to a handheld walkthrough, as the door you just came through disappears, allowing no backtracking. Then, it's "what do I have to do in this room to unlock/make visible the next door?" ad nauseum. Plus, the constant feeling of dread slowly pushes you to just want to get through. At first, I enjoyed searching through the mansion and finding more information on the cause of my character's insanity, but as it went on, I more and more just wanted to sprint through, get to that next jump, so I would know I was safe, at least for a little bit. Combine that with the aforementioned beautiful graphics and well-hidden puzzle pieces, throw on a heaping helping of "super dark", and the dread turned to tediousness and frustration as I circled rooms not knowing if the button I'd finally push would let me out or scare the bejeezus out of me.
I started blocking the scary stuff out and imagining the game for it's core gameplay, which slapped it into the "walking simulator" category for me. As I said, with the ever shifting rooms, there's barely more than an entrance or an exit, meaning the "exploration" you are doing is only in name, you're on your way down a hallway. At times, I felt like I was just spinning in a circle until the game decided to let me see the new exit. A particular room found me looking at a wall that obviously held the door (only place in the room with a bare wall), and I had to look at a particular place before the door opened. It was a lesson in frustration for me. To further the "walking sim" attitude, it appears to me that the only physical threats in the game don't actually end it, they merely help decide which of the three endings you get to see. You can even choose to avoid those deaths, it's quite literally a gameplay mechanic to get the best ending. It's that curiousity that creeps in; you want to see it but you don't, that leads to the jumps that cause a death which is quickly resolved, be it the work of supernatural beings or the mind of a madman.
So, Layers of Fear is a psychological mindwarp of a walking sim. The amount I played made me feel (as not a traditional fan of scary things) that I couldn't do multiple playthroughs, which is probably how a lot of gamers would feel. With the multiple endings based on collectibles that you might end up dashing past in fear and getting or avoiding certain deaths, the specifics may be lost on someone not hardcore into the storyline, which is sad as the game works hard to immerse you. It may be asking too much to go through thrice just to make sure you see it all. My uneasy self played it in the middle of the day with the lights on and was plenty disturbed enough; watching some Let's Plays of the later action was enough for me to NOPE right out of any more play time. For me, Mr. Horror Lite, this would probably be a pass, but if you're the type who loves to scream at the television for the teen to not go IN THAT ROOM THAT'S WHERE THE MONSTER IS you'll love the grisly nature and have to pull yourself back from the door as that mentality creeps over you. Like a crazy cross between Until Dawn and the P.T. demo, true horror afficionados will love this game, but those wishing for a good night's sleep may want to put the paintbrush back down and end the madness for good.
Final Review Score: 2.25/5
A review copy was provided by the publishers for analysis on Xbox One. The title is also available for PlayStation 4 and the aforementioned PC.