Kate stares blankly at her computer screen. She sits there for about ten minutes, her cat mewling in concern near her feet. She exhales, shakily.
After some time, she stands up and walks to the kitchen, then grabs to bottle of whiskey from the cabinet, pouring herself a glass. She sighs and gazes out the window, the dark rain ticking against the glass like a metronome.
To be honest, I’m having a hard time finding the words to properly describe my seven-hour experience of Layers of Fear. In short, I enjoyed it; loved it actually. It will no doubt be among the small handful of horror titles I’ll recommend to those looking for a true mindscrew.
But this game didn’t only scare and terrify me; I also faced a lot of personal fears in my own professional life as an artist, to a borderline upsetting level, while playing this game.
I apologize for the personal note to this review… but at the same time, if a game can shed light on certain realities, cause emotions that knock the wind from you, or anything else out of the ordinary, then isn’t that a good thing?
Right, the review.
I am thoroughly impressed with not only the overall graphics, but the seamless animated textures of various elements in the game. Melting paintings, shifting imagery in front of your eyes, and especially the distorted effects as your sanity is chipped away were well-executed. There were only one or two very minor graphical glitches like flickering shadows I would encounter, but even then it wasn’t enough of a glitch that bothered me too much.
The high resolution of the paintings used throughout the house were amazing to look at. Which is good, because I ended up taking about 200 screenshots of paintings throughout the game for an upcoming special feature (despite succumbing to the jump scares and nightmare fuel in the middle of hitting F12)!
Sound is essential if you want to suspend the disbelief of your players in horror games. Sound is the defining factor if you want your players to investigate something, or feel ill-at-ease. Layers of Fear achieves this beautifully. Playing with headphones was also an interesting experience, as noises are directional in this game, even guiding you in a way to your next destination.
If you are playing this game, please play this with your headphones on. When I streamed this with just the sound coming from the TV, I lost a lot of the audio cues and tension that Bloober Team cleverly crafted. With headphones, you can hear every knock, bump, wail, atmospheric tension, everything.
You know how movies like Paranormal Activity tell you the demon’s presence is in the room through the sudden heavy audio tension? Layers of Fear uses techniques like this in their sound design to create this same tension and unease, but unlike Paranormal Activity, it never feels like a gimmick. And the whole game is such a huge ball of tension that, when this sound stops at certain points, you are more unnerved by the sudden dead silence.
Speaking of atmospheric tension, I must say that having it in my ears was one of the biggest reasons for the constant dread playing this game, as I mentioned in my first impressions. Well done, Bloober Team.
There were considerable risks taken by the Bloober Team in the development of Layers of Fear, primarily with things like the ever-shifting labyrinth, movements that change the layout of a room, and even the subject matter of the paintings and overall theme of the game.
Simplifying gameplay to narrate an incredibly complex world was a risk that paid off. I would even go as far to call this “horror exploration”, because the most important goal in this game is not only completing your Magnum Opus — uncovering the truth behind the layers of memory is tantamount to the successful completion of this game. How much time you dedicate to hunting down letters, documents, drawings, and other pieces of the past will determine how close you get to the reality of the story.
And while there are no enemies to fight off, the persistence of past memories will assault you with visions, with no means to fight back or run. This may make the game seem simple and linear, but it is important to note that this isn’t your standard horror game. There are no zombies. There are no monsters. The only monsters that exist are the ones inside your head.
I have my own theories as to what this all might mean, but I think I want to cover it in my upcoming special feature for this game. If you are interested in reading that, I highly encourage you to play and finish the game prior to reading, as I will be divulging in a lot of spoiler information in that.
I will only mention one thing about the ending: I really enjoyed how the Bloober Team started their ending credits and I have to say it’s one of the most creative ways to credit the team I’ve ever seen in a game.
So if you have an iron stomach and are hungry for games like P.T., let us all take a moment to bow our heads and pray Layers of Fear fills that void just enough, with an ending that leaves the interpretation up to your imagination.
Watch out for my special feature article on Layers of Fear where I go into art history, themes, and my interpretation of the whole story. I have a lot of research ahead of me, so stay tuned for something new next week!
Kate Rhiannon is a Contributor and graphics artist for AYBOnline.com, and a producer for the Level 1 Scrubs podcast. Her opinions are her own.