The Layers of Fear series has been somewhat polarising among fans of the horror genre. On one hand, it was praised as reinventing the wheel, and on the other, it fell into certain tropes that repetition caused the scares to feel less impactful as the game went on. By no means is my opinion definitive, but not having played either before jumping into this reimagining, I feel like it’s the best way to experience Bloober Team‘s complete tale of tragic artists. With Anshar Studios sharing development duties, and being one of the first games developed with the help of Unreal Engine 5, I was excited to formulate my own thoughts and experience the story in its entirety.
For those not entirely sure what Layers of Fear is, it tells three stories. One of which is about a successful painter who begins to struggle with creating the next masterpiece; the other is about an actor who arrives on an ocean liner after being hand-picked by the director; and the final one is from the viewpoint of a writer who has been given the opportunity to write about the tragic lives of the previous two creators. The themes seen in the game touch on some rather heavy subject matter, yet they’re handled with sensitivity and are never gratuitous or unnecessary.
Neither a reboot or remake, Layers of Fear starts off where you play as the writer. Set in the mid-1950s, you have won the opportunity to write about these troubled artists at a creepy lighthouse. From there, you start to play the original game with voice-overs from the writer at certain points, along with returning gameplay sections where you explore the lighthouse and start to hear and see a plethora of creepy occurrences. Once the story of the painter has finished, you’ll explore Layers of Fear 2 aka The Actor, and it follows a similar pattern until the end. You’re also free to dive into the two additional stories that provide background to the wife and the daughter of the painter, and it all ties together in one seamless narrative that explores insanity and passion, both for those we love and the works we create.
The Painter’s story is perhaps my favourite. Set within the confines of a Victorian mansion, you start to uncover how a talented artist starts to struggle with the weight of success. On the outside, it looks as though he has it all: a loving wife, a unique gift, and a beautiful daughter. However, through letters and scraps of paper, and objects scattered around the house, you learn of a crumbling marriage, a crippling obsession with success, and a slow decent into madness. It’s psychological horror at its finest, drip-feeding you with details about where it all went wrong and what led to his shattered mental state, and at times it’s upsetting to see just how a broken home starts to form.
The story is further explored with the included DLC which follows his daughter years later as she returns to the house. It further cements ideas in your mind about their relationship, but also offers more sorrowful realisations about a man who couldn’t give his daughter what she needed. The new addition to Layers of Fear is ‘The Final Note,’ a short yet impactful insight from the viewpoint of the wife. Without being too spoiler-heavy, she was a talented musician that became a muse for the painter, but after a tragic accident, she struggled to remember who she was, leaving her feeling less of a woman and unloved by her husband.
While I didn’t enjoy the actor’s story as much, I still found it interesting and absorbing. Set on board the ocean liner, you start to uncover the intentions of the director and the relationship between the two siblings at the heart of everything, Lily and James. You are there to embody the role through method acting, something which is a relatively new concept in early 1900’s Hollywood. While it has parallels to the original, it’s able to create a dense narrative that almost always delivers. Having all of these stories in one game helps to create such a profound thesis on the mind and mental health, which is something I’ve not seen done as well as it is in Layers of Fear.
Each story isn’t solely told by reading documents and listening to the characters. The way the environments move and change without you ever noticing is incredible. Like a walk through an Escher painting, the world around you contorts and moves. As you enter a room and then turn around, everything is different. Walls close in on you, furniture slams into walls and lights flicker and burn out, floors disappear beneath you and your entire existence shift in the blink of an eye. The new technology makes these transitions flawless, leaving you constantly unsure and off-guard, and the effort put into this state of uncertainly is anything but harmonious.
Layers of Fear uses the environment to take your breath away when you least expect it. Sure, there’re jump scares at times, and maybe it relies on them a bit too often, but the real terror is never knowing what to expect. It subverts expectations from the genre and provides its horror through the way it manipulates imagery and your surroundings rather than a lazy reliance of blood and gore. It’s beautiful at times, and you forget about the tragedies if only for a second to appreciate how stunning it looks. The lighting is phenomenal, and even plays into the gameplay where you must use a torch to reveal secrets and dispel a woman that haunts you around the mansion, or animate static dummies in the actor’s story to aid you as you explore.
At times, movement can be a little slow, especially in the painter’s story, and the exploration is more on-rails than it is freeing. Travelling from room to room, you’ll route around your surroundings to find items of note or key information to read before moving on, but I enjoyed its pacing as the stories gripped me throughout. Layers of Fear also features a handful of puzzles which you must solve before leaving an area. Sometimes they’re engaging and get you thinking outside the box, where others feel arbitrary. One puzzle in the painter’s story has you moving around a room looking for a particular view through easels to unlock a door, where another sends you on a linear traipse through rooms to find a selection of keys with animals on them.
They’re an attempt to add gamey elements to Layers of Fear, and while they don’t always hit, they can be a nice distraction. What makes Anshar Studios and Bloober Team’s reimaging stand out are the set pieces. With visuals that constantly wowed me throughout, certain moments blew me away. It’d be unfair of me to ruin them for you now, but as each tale delves further into the human psyche, events get weirder and more abstract, and I was impressed with what the developers have done on the PlayStation 5.
Layers of Fear deals with trauma delicately while still managing to create scares throughout. Its brand of horror focuses on the psychological, leaving you uneasy every step of the way. It’s a visual masterpiece within the genre, and the stories tell a clear and terrifying tale, all tied together by the inclusion of the new character of the writer. Even if you’ve played the originals and liked them, there’s so much more at play to offer a new way to experience a series that helped to redefine what horror can be, and even now I can’t stop thinking about it.
Excellent level design
New narrative threads everything together well
Some great set pieces
Some puzzles are arbitrary
Often relies on jump scares