I know how you must feel.
You probably deserve it.
But even for you, there is still a way. A way to bring it all back. The one precious thing you ever truly desired.
With these words, Layers of Fear opens in a lushly appointed mansion. Venturing deeper into its halls, you will see that even though this house was richly decorated, it is beginning to crumble and decay from neglect. Broken liquor bottles crunch underfoot, smashed paintings line the walls. After brief exploration, you will find the heart of the house. In your workshop, paint is splattered everywhere, paintbrushes are in a jumbled heap, all framing the centerpiece of the room. An artist’s easel stands prominently in the center of the workshop, covered by a stained cloth. What lies beneath? I won’t say, but you must…finish it.
After the prologue spent exploring the house and discovering the artist’s workshop, the bulk of the game is spent wandering the mansion finding six things you need to complete the painting. In first person perspective, you will open many, many doors and wander countless hallways. It is not that the mansion is huge, but rather, after you open the door from your workshop you are no longer truly in the mansion any more, but in a space the famous Dr. Hannibal Lecter called the memory palace. Rooms hold memories, hallways twist like the folds of the brain’s surface. Stacks of books precariously piled high are like a jumble of thoughts, portraits with two faces represent tangled emotions; the physical space of this artist’s memory palace cannot be graphed on an architect’s pad.
You will enter a room with no exit, the door you entered locking behind you. After turning around several times, there will be a door where there was none before. You will go through the same twisted hallway again and again, perhaps the walls more decayed every time, until perhaps the fourth time, you open the door at the end of the hall into a completely different room.
The labyrinth you will encounter in Layers of Fear offers many twists to hold your attention, The Six Objects you need to find to complete the painting correspond to 6 chapters in the game, each with their own theme to explore. The gloomy mood is heightened by a suitably creepy soundtrack and un-nerving sound effects. Doors and floorboards creak, ambient sounds like wind ,thunder, and soft crying all heighten the mood. If you have any doubts the game is set in the artist’s mind, those will be shattered when you encounter situations and scenes impossible in real world physics. Cementing this unreality is the fact that while player death is possible, you will simply wake up a few rooms back from where you were, shake it off, and continue.
The first half hour might lead the player to believe that this is a game like Gone Home, where a search of the house will turn up notes and objects to explain what happened before. While there are elements that are similar, this house doesn’t follow the rules. Doors almost always lock behind you, and hallways and rooms shift and change like the staircases at Hogwarts Academy. This creates more of a linear path than a space to explore, a rat’s maze that can not truly be memorized, only followed to its end. Like a haunted house, the player must push forward to the next scene, and all will be revealed eventually. Occasionally, the player will stumble across a puzzle, which if solved will yield a collectible that further explains the artist’s past, madness, or obsession. All of these puzzles are completely optional, and not necessary to progress in the game.
Verdict: Good, but know what you’re getting.
I expected a game of exploration and puzzle solving, and while there was some of that, the shifting halls and doors that lock behind prevented complete exploration. Once I accepted the game was more like a psychadelic haunted house at the carnival, I was able to enjoy my time with Layers of Fear more, and press on to the next scene. Although there is a morbid past that unfolds in its six chapters and epilogue, the story is there to serve and support the little vignettes and dioramas the game wants to show you. The horror in the game is thankfully not wasted on jump scare after jump scare, but rather the horror focuses on decay, loss of control and sanity, and the obsession that is strong enough to sacrifice one’s own humanity.
Feeling like I exited a well designed haunted house, I had a great time with Layers of Fear, but I won’t look back.
Layers of Fear is available for $19.99 on Steam, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. A Steam copy was provided for review, and as always, to hear more of my thoughts on this and other games check out the Plug and Play podcast.