Making the perfect portrait.
I’m a fan of horror. Whether it be in the form of film, television, games, fiction, etc., I tend to enjoy a good scare. Sure, hack-and-slash films and tasteless gratuity can limit the potential an experience can deliver, but the same intense scenes can positively impact another piece (take the wonderful Sinister and compare it to, say, Freddy vs. Jason). The same idea applies to video games. I’ve played intense but rewarding horror titles like Outlast, F.E.A.R., and Silent Hill (3 is my favorite). I’ve also suffered through bad horror titles, or ones that really don’t ‘reach’ me, like Resident Evil 4, 5, or 6 and Slenderman. At the same time, I’ve been scared witless by meaningless games like Emily Wants to Play. In all, however, the genre still inspires and awes me. Layers of Fear is perhaps one of the more unique experiences of the aforementioned titles.
So what does that mean? Layers of Fear draws a fine line between visual storytelling and survival horror. If you go into Layers of Fear expecting a first person horror experience like Amnesia or Outlast, you’ll most likely end up rather disappointed. But if you go into Layers of Fear in hopes of an interesting tale, creepy atmosphere, and look into the degrading mind of a genius artist, you’ll probably enjoy this indie developed game.
Layers of Fear tells the tale of a once brilliant painter. The opening of the game has you walking through the mud room of your mansion, and it allows you to explore the entirety of your home. Notes from your wife and butler are posted around the sprawling manor, and, from nearly your first footstep into the house, something feels off. Still, the architecture of the house piqued my interest, so I examined every room and corner and opened every shelf. Eventually, I found myself with a key (thanks to a note from the butler) and entered into the infamous painting room. An easel and a canvas sit, covered, in the center of the area. Once I decided I had investigated my mysteriously quiet house to my own preference, I yanked free the cover on the canvas – and my story began.
Psychological horror has really never been done better than in Layers of Fear. In creating such a simple premise – finding inspiration to finish your masterpiece while exploring your home – developer Bloober Team was able to focus on the degradation of the mind and how it affected the protagonist and the player. I can say that the game thoroughly baffled my mind, and I often felt trapped; anxiety, even, crept up on me a few times during the course of the game. I like to think I’m a fairly stoic horror guy, but moments in Layers of Fear truly unnerved me. The protagonist’s struggles became, in part, my own, and his world felt and looked so real as to disorient my state of mind. Now, taking a step back for a moment, I understand how weird that sounds. No, I’m (probably) not slipping into a mental decline; what I mean is that Layers of Fear created such an immersive environment and atmosphere that I felt what the character felt – which can get pretty damn dark, as you progress through the tale.
Gameplay in Layers of Fear is very standard. The left joystick moves the protagonist, while the right joystick allows the player to look around. L2 lets the player sprint limp, while R2 lets the player grab or open items or drawers. That’s the gameplay. What helps the gameplay, however, is the immersive and dreadful soundtrack, the various puzzles, and the dizzying insanity of a few of the rooms/experiences. And this brings me to my biggest complaint about Layers of Fear: people who suffer from vertigo, epilepsy, or any sort of motion sickness may want to avoid Layers of Fear – especially the end. Bright and dark colors and lights flash, the protagonist spins with intense fervor a few times, and the motion of certain situations finds the character’s vision to shake and blur. For the normal gamer, most of what I described is fairly normal or expected, but Layers of Fear uses these extremes to enhance its experience – at the cost of making a game fully playable by a group of people.
Still, outside of this one, albeit large, flaw, Layers of Fear offers horror fans the opportunity to delve into the mindset of an artist descending into insanity. As you help him create his masterpiece painting, you’ll be able to access multiple endings, thus enabling you to experience different conclusions. The ending I saw on my first play through was actually fairly entertaining, though it was pretty dark. I don’t wish to spoil this intense experience, so I’ll leave it at this: Layers of Fear is a game with multiple layers in itself that deserves to be experienced and explored. Should you be able to cope with the horror of the game and of the crashing lights, you’ll be rewarded with a fascinating narrative and examination of the human mind.