A good horror story knows how to get under your skin, and makes you think long and hard about it afterwards. What’s more, the more you think about it, the creepier it becomes.
That’s the kind of tale that Layers of Fear tells; a first person psychological horror in a similar vein to the PT Demo, Layers of Fear presents players with a feeling of unease from the outset. Playing as a painter with a serious case of creative block, and potentially a fair few other emotional troubles as well, you start the game in what appears to be a fairly affluent, albeit abandoned, 19th century homestead. It feels more like it’s trying to channel Ibsen than Poe. That is until you pull the sheet off a canvas in your workshop and once again begin work on your magnum opus. Then all bets are off. As soon as you leave the room, Layer’s of Fear then spends the rest of your time with it messing with your head. Making you question the motives of the protagonist, and your every action in equal measure as the world around you morphs and mutates with your every movement, trapping you in a literal haunted house filled with obsession and remorse.
The imagery is consistently unnerving, as the respectable facade of the house swiftly peels away like old paint, revealing the monstrous visage underneath. Paint and viscera are splashed against the walls, monstrous forms lurk in the darkness, and the house itself is hostile and alive – trapping the painter inside; slamming doors in your face, twisting corridors back in on themselves and making you second guess your every move. Meanwhile unknown voices mutter and growl from the DualShock’s speaker ( though this does actually mean a collectable is close by) further amping up the tension along with Layer of Fear’s pointed, yet minimal soundtrack which punctuates it’s tenser moments like a book being thrown on a table.
Like most haunted houses, Layers of Fear makes liberal use of jump scares to generally good effect. But where it really shines is how it wilfully toys with your senses; Things move as soon as you look away, a door you just came through might be locked or have simply vanished when you turn round. The state of a room will have altered when you simply shift your gaze. Paintings become distorted, morphing into horrifying images just on the edges of your periphery. This very quickly erodes your ability to trust anything you see, putting you almost constantly on edge.
Each change is expertly executed too, When the world changes it’s often initially in such subtle ways that you don’t realise it’s happening until it’s too late. In this respect the game plays you. Though technically Layers of Fear could best be described as a grizzly version of Gone Home, You’re not simply a bystander passively observing or unravelling events that you have had no part of, your every movement effects the world around you, and the game pushes back making sure you’re always slightly off kilter.
Unsurprisingly art plays an integral part in the experience. Both the cause, and expression, of the protagonists maddening anxiety. His own collection of Renaissance portraits and artwork, consist of everything from stern portraits to monstrous apparitions and unsettling freaks, warped images that are as disturbing as they are captivating.
The narrative; one of obsession and madness in the vein of classic gothic literature such as Poe’s ‘The Telltale Heart’ or Lovecraft’s ‘The Tomb’, with shades of ‘The Shining’ thrown in for good measure. Tells the tale of a troubled and desperate artist, with terminal creative troubles, falling to madness in an abandoned house, tormented by the ghosts of his past in the spaces they once inhabited. But is he a victim or the architect of his own downfall? Once again your actions have an effect on whether or not the protagonist finds redemption or continues to wallow in self pity and madness. As you progress you stumble across notes and objects that reveal the series of events that led to our artists current psychosis, forcing you to question your player characters motives, and if you even want him to succeed.
I would recommend poking around every corner you can find though, because every scrap of paper and artifact you find sheds a new and darker light on proceedings in ways I simply don’t want to ruin here.
Multiple playthroughs are also recommended. Not only are there multiple endings to uncover, but there are things that only really hit you in a second telling, with the games clever foreshadowing and only showing just enough to make your mind come up with something far worse.
There are a few minor issues though, the controls often feel sluggish and clumsy, with opening a door taking far more dexterity than it ever should at times. It can also be tricky to highlight things you want to interact with thanks to an incredibly faint aiming reticle and small amounts of pixel hunting. Occasionally progression is hindered by an obtuse puzzle, compounded by fiddly interactions that meant I found myself on more than one occasion sat in a room wondering what I’d missed. This chucked any sense of tension out the window replacing it with a mild sense of boredom as i tried to figure out what to press to trigger the next scare or push the game forward in some way. When a room suddenly bursting into flames as the blood curdling screams of people burning to death fill the air illicits a feeling of relief and a minor eureka moment instead of making you crap yourself. Something has gone wrong.
Its few minor missteps aside, Layers of Fear is a solid Horror game that plays with players perceptions in a way that I haven’t seen accomplished with such finesse since Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. If you’re a fan of a good ghost tale, were left wanting more after PT and think have the stomach for it, I would higher recommend giving Layers of Fear a whirl. I’d just lay off the absinthe before hand.