Platforms: PC, Mac, Playstation 4 (reviewed), and Xbox One
Horror games are a tough genre for me to approach. I honestly don’t like horror very much. I don’t like being scared. I don’t like the uneasy feeling of knowing something might jump out and try to startle the crap out of you. My initial reaction to something like that tends to be more wanting to respond with violence than “oh, good one, ya got me!” There have been a few exceptions over the years and most of them of have had the words “silent” and “hill” in the titles. Layers of Fear has neither of those words in it, but I wanted to give it a try anyway. Seeming to be drawing inspiration from the infamous P.T., it had me curious enough to get me to wait until the sun went down to set the mood and dig in.
Layers of Fear’s opening is predictably ominous – you walk into a large, seemingly empty mansion as the night takes a turn for the dark and stormy, an obvious enough setup for any media. You’re free to explore the house before events start taking a turn for the creepy. This serves as a chance to not only get your bearings, something that will ultimately prove a fruitless endeavor, but also to get a sense of what’s going on before things get turned upside down. While trying to get a sense of place in the house is fairly pointless, the house itself serves as the backstory. There’s an empty child’s room, a closet full of dozens of mousetraps, among other things, that add to foreboding atmosphere.
What Layers of Fear does from there is mess with your sense of place. If you familiarized yourself with the house, you’ll start to notice things not quite right. Actually, you’ll notice it whether you did or not, as it starts as nearly as soon as you leave the first locked room you gain access to. From there, you’re no longer truly able to explore beyond a few rooms at a time, as you’ll be cut off by locked or blocked off doors. Room layouts will be nearly completely foreign as to what you had seen in the house when you first came in.
Then the jump scares begin. Objects are rearranged behind your back. A knife gets thrown at you and when you go to look back, no one is there. Windows fly open or shut. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before. These are tricks that are used through the entirety of Layers of Fear, enough that if it that was all it had to offer, it would hurt the game. A lot. Thankfully, there’s more to it though. Throughout the mansion, there are objects to uncover and sheets of paper to be read. These items fill in the gaps that a simple walkthrough of the game would otherwise leave unsaid. They never seem to answer them outright, at least not in my playthrough, but they do flesh out more of the circumstances leading up your time in the mansion.
One thing Layers of Fear does at every opportunity is, as I mentioned earlier, disorient you. You go from one room to the next, never entirely sure what’s coming. Another jump scare, a puzzle to solve, a few different pathways that it never makes explicit which is the proper one – these things make up the core of Layers of Fear. How the game mixes them up and throws in a few other things for good measure aren’t its strongest suits. No, the strength of Layers of Fear lies in what it doesn’t obviously throw at you. If you’re not paying attention, you may not notice a few more subtle scares. Look into an occasional window closely enough and you may notice something in the image that wasn’t actually in the room. Turn around to look and it’s not there. You’d expect that once you turn around again, that thing will jump out at you to startle you. Except, sometimes, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes the thing is no longer in the reflection of the window and you’re left wondering when the payoff is coming. Those are my favorite moments. My simple way of telling the distinction between Resident Evil and Silent Hill was that while both will set you up for a jump scare, Silent Hill leaves you without the jump. Just that feeling of dread that something is coming and almost never comes is what you’re left with. Those moments aren’t obvious or frequent in Layers of Fear, but when they are there, they really add to the experience.
The other part of not having a sense of place has to do with the setting. Prices in newspaper articles and the mansion’s décor indicate a late 19th or early 20th century setting, but the speech patterns, both written and spoken, are definitely not of that time. There are also some other oddities that make it hard to get a sense of when Layers of Fear is happening. While it’s not a huge concern, it left me thinking about it more than I probably should have, taking me out of certain moments while I tried to figure out if it was just inaccurate period writing or a city full of hipsters that had an obsession with that time period but couldn’t quite get themselves to commit.
A side note, I played this on the Playstation 4 and when you come near an item that will add a little more to your understanding (or confusion, depending on which and how many you find), the speaker in the Dualshock 4 would start making whispering noise, becoming louder as you drew closer to the item. Occasionally, I would notice the speaker trigger for a split second and then go silent. It didn’t seem to indicate the presence of anything in particular that I could place, but what was a cool use of the Dualshock 4 became a bit of nuisance when it didn’t work properly.
Layers of Fear is going to be swing and a miss for some. If you’re not into exploring every nook and cranny, you’re going to miss out on a lot of plot details. Most of details as to what’s happening are hidden behind the knick-knacks and letters hidden throughout the house. Skip out on most of those and Layers of Fear is going to feel like a haunted house staffed by costumed teenagers, going more for jump scares than actual frightening moments. Dig deeper and there’s a dark tale being told that’s far more rewarding than the surface lets on. With its telling a story about a painter’s descent into madness, perhaps that’s part of the message of Layer of Fear as well – you have to look beyond the obvious surface to appreciate what’s happening.