Layers of Fear follows in the footsteps of the Silent Hills playable teaser, except this time you’re an abusive painter husband.
|Console||PC/Mac/Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch|
|Publisher||Aspyr Media, Inc.|
|Genre||Psychological horror, walking simulator|
|Release Year||2016, 2018|
|Purchase (PC)||Purchase from Steam.|
|Purchase Inheritance DLC (PC)||Purchase from Steam.|
I’m definitely no stranger to first-person horror games. I had around 200 hours of playtime on Amnesia: The Dark Descent alone. There is just something compelling about horror games like it that make me curious and want to explore unnaturally dark areas. You know, take chances and face your fears.
So of course, a game like Layers of Fear would appeal to me. Let’s take a mundane setting and turn it into the most twisted thing imaginable. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun? Of course it does! Because the human race is full of buttholes and we need to constantly remind ourselves that we can be real buttholes to one another. Ya buttholes.
An Artist’s Journey
Layers of Fear starts off with a little message telling you that your actions in the game will affect the narrative. Meaning possible branching paths and multiple endings (specifically, three different endings).
At its core, Layers of Fear is a first-person exploration game where you must interact with the environment by examining objects and collecting notes. Diligent exploration is a must if you want to get the game’s full storyline. This type of gameplay falls within the same vein of games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home. There isn’t really any “gameplay” per say and the game doesn’t directly give you its narrative. To get the story, you have to interact with the environment and use context clues to piece everything together.
You’re an unnamed artist living a life of luxury, though you find your house to be strangely empty. It was heavily implied that you had a loving wife and a child at some point. But as you continue looking around in your house, something goes horribly wrong.
The house is changing. The layout shifts about, paintings melt to reveal more disturbing images, you hear sinister whispers in the hallways, and objects randomly appear behind you when you look away. It’s not what I would call a haunting, but more like crossing another dimension. In some ways, Layers of Fear reminds me of the David Lynch movie called Inland Empire, which merged horror and surrealism together in a mundane setting. Particularly, the house segments.
Make no mistake, though. There IS something out to get you.
Your own wife.
However, Layers of Fear did get inspiration from the Silent Hills Playable Teaser. No, really. Like, it outright took ideas from P.T. A twitching ghost lady, a frequently crying baby, the house setting, repeating hallways, mysterious phone calls, and even some plot elements. But to be fair for one moment, the developer Bloober Team was highly disappointed by the Silent Hills cancellation just like with everyone else. After seeing how many people wanted to see Silent Hills come into fruition, they responded by creating their own horror game that makes several nods to P.T.
Other games like Visage, Allison Road (which was previously cancelled but brought back again), The Park, and Resident Evil 7: Biohazard had also alluded to P.T.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s break down the specifics of Layers of Fear.
Up and Down and Everywhere
Let’s get this out of the way. This game’s art direction is fantastic. The 3D environments look like highly-detailed cinematic set pieces. There is even a unique sequence where CRAYON drawings are animated in a most unsettling way. As for the actual paintings you come across, they are creepy as fuck. I really like how they can seem to come alive at times. Furthermore, the house you’re in just outright messes with your mind. The constantly changing rooms will keep you disoriented and you will start seeing things that weren’t there before. I will have to admit, though, that some of these visuals can be quite intense at times to the point where you can’t really play it for 30 minutes without taking a break. I don’t have a history of epileptic seizures, but I sometimes feel a bit of motion sickness while playing this game for a little bit.
To be honest, the most scared I’ve been during Layers of Fear is at the “mildly creeped out” level. I just don’t find the game that scary. The main problem with Layers of Fear is that, even though it seemed like things were out to get you, you were never in any real danger for the most part. Occasionally, there are sequences where you come across a ghoulish lady, which you can move away from. But even when she gets you, all she does is get up to your face and shake you for a few seconds. After that, you’re already in the next area in the game. Seriously, there is no tension whatsoever because of that.
So what does Layers of Fear do to keep you on the edge?
Jumpscares. Lots of jumpscares. Including the stock “BOOM!” sounds.
Here’s the thing I have with jumpscares. The worst they can do is startle me. But because I am pretty desensitized to sudden loud noises and pop-up visuals, most jumpscares just fall flat for me. Seriously, this one time in my old workplace, this kid’s balloon popped and I was the only person in the room who didn’t react to it. All I could think of was…
Well, that was a thing.
I’m just done with those types of scares. In the end, I don’t feel anything resembling horror from them. Let me explain why.
What I find scary in a video game is:
- There are things out to get you.
- You are much weaker than these things.
- There is little you can do to stop them. You are nothing but prey.
- You feel genuine dread from failing to escape your predator.
You know those “scary” videos/games that you force your friends to watch, just to get your cheap laughs? Like this one?
If that actually made you jump, then HEE-HEE-HEE-HA-HA-HA!
See, a jumpscare is cheap and lacks subtlety. Someone can easily throw in a loud noise or a monster randomly popping up in front of you, even during moments where they’re not appropriate. And that’s no fun when you’re on the receiving end. It’s only fun for the person trying to get a funny reaction out of you.
But when you see a monster chasing after you through a dark hallway and you’re already injured, that’s genuine fear. The kind that makes your body shake. A few beads of sweat form on your forehead. Being able to count your own heartbeats. Don’t want to make any progress because you’re anticipating the horrible things that may happen to you.
Many horror games with an emphasis on action don’t really do much for me. But my first playthroughs of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast really do make me feel vulnerable and weak. Having no control over your situations is scary alone.
Unfortunately, Layers of Fear doesn’t have any of that. There aren’t even any chase sequences to cause the tension to spike. Sometimes, I even find myself running towards the twitchy lady just for the hell of it. Partially because I know nothing bad is going to happen and I’m just going to advance through the game anyway. Sorry, but it’s true. I would genuinely laugh if someone were to say that this game is one of the scariest things they ever played. I would play through this game, thinking, “I just want to die, goddamnit!” like a weird, sadomasochistic maniac.
While the game can be disturbing, sometimes it tries a little too hard at it. For example, there’s this whole segment where you come across living baby dolls. As illustrated by this little clip from AngryJoe, it becomes more difficult to take this game seriously.
Was that really supposed to be disturbing or just flat out hilarious? It definitely amused me when I first saw the baby doll bumps its head like that for the first time.
The sound design overall is okay, much better with headphones on. There are noticeable stock sound effects here and there, but overall I do like the atmosphere. While there is little music, I do like the lovely piano pieces.
The Story Behind It All
Okay, this next section is going to be spoiler-y as hell, so you can definitely skip it if you don’t want to read it.
So basically, the entire premise of the game is that you’re this 19th century painter who had clearly gone insane and he was trying to complete his final masterpiece. But along the way, he experiences paranormal activity in his house while exploring his past memories.
The past memories are mostly visions of his apparently dead wife, his failing career, and murders that happened in the past. Despite what we’ve seen from them, these memories are physically harmless to the artist.
The events of the entire game were simply a journey into his insane mind while he completes the painting in several phases. What the painting will be depends on the “choices” you make during the journey. Do you confront the wife? Do you follow the rats? Do you bother solving the puzzles along the way? How many have you done? Which items did you collect?
The rest of the game is filled with metaphors, symbolism and implied backstories. So of course, come up with your own “game theories” and whatnot. However, I do like this particular one by a user named Desbreko.
As for my thoughts… Honestly, the painter you play as? I have no sympathy for the bastard whatsoever. If you read through the notes scattered across the game and listened to the flashbacks, he’s a real butthole of a man. He keeps empty bottles of alcohol in many random places in his house. During the flashbacks, he sounds like a pretentious bastard who was already unhinged. It was heavily implied that he murdered his own wife and child and even kept their body parts. Even before he went on this mad spree, he was still a real dickhole from beginning to end. Almost nothing relatable or likable about him.
For me, this kills the tension in the story. Because of this heavy-handed approach to make your protagonist the biggest dick in the world, you don’t feel bad for what happens to him. If anything, I wouldn’t mind seeing him get his comeuppance. It just feels like that he is the real antagonist in this story.
Even when you get the endings where he “redeems” himself, this character development somehow feels incomplete. I don’t know. It just feels contrived somehow, because of the very specific tasks you must do to achieve these endings.
Admittedly, I liked this story better than the one used for Gone Home—which, by the way, feels like a corny-as-hell lesbian romance story just for the sake of putting more LBGT plots in video games, even crappy ones. While I liked the story and the subtext of Layers of Fear as a concept, the execution feels off. Nothing was really out to kill me and there are no real stakes for failure.
Because of the ambiguity on how you make choices in this game, obtaining specific endings is a confusing and convoluted process that may require a walkthrough. Sometimes just by performing certain actions you wouldn’t think would change the story (such as following rats), you end up getting the wrong ending. And in all likelihood, you’re going to get the neutral ending (the one with the laughing paintings).
The story of Layer of Fears sounds good on paper and the subtext is fascinating, but it suffers from flawed execution due to the lack of high stakes and an unlikable protagonist.
The Inheritance campaign has you take the role of the painter’s daughter, now grown up and revisiting her childhood home. The house is now in shambles and there is no one to be seen. All the daughter wants is to find out the reasons behind her father’s abusive behavior and his descent into insanity. Some answers. And to do that, she looks in each room of the house while experiencing flashbacks of her childhood.
And just like the main game, the art direction is gorgeous. As I commented earlier, there was a segment in the main game involving crayon drawings. But they’re back and better than ever in one of the segments for Inheritance.
Gameplay wise, everything is quite the same and you pretty much have to figure out which puzzles you need to solve. Story wise, it’s about what I expected. An abusive father with high expectations for his daughter to be a talented painter, while the mother is distraught about him placing more importance into his work over his family.
Oddly enough, there’s one particular segment that got to me. There’s a puzzle where you come across a cat toy missing its front wheel, so you have to find the wheel to progress. After you accomplish this, the cat toy smiles and leads you through a long hallway while you listen to the parents arguing. At the end of the hallway, the argument concludes and you find that the toy cat has a family of kitten toys. And then you part ways from there.
This might be a very subjective thing, but this part made me sad in a similar fashion to how I felt about the ending of Among the Sleep. All the daughter wanted is a happy family. She wanted some way to repair a broken family (which I felt is represented by repairing the cat toy). In turn, this cat toy leads her to a happy family of toy kittens. And then they move out of her reach, signifying that she can never have this happy family.
Yes, this interpretation might be a stretch. But this small moment alone made my playthrough of Layers of Fear worth it in the end, because it had me emotionally invested for once.
Which is something I forgot to address earlier. The story of the main game didn’t really have me emotionally invested because I can’t relate to such a butthole of a protagonist and his problems. I know the game is trying to portray him as this tragic artist who is far too obsessed with his work, but the way he treats his wife and child is just plain hateful.
But for Inheritance, I can sympathize with the daughter because it’s like you’re on the receiving end of the artist’s harsh criticisms and anger-induced outbursts. It’s also heavily implied that the daughter “inherited” this trait of insanity from her father, leading to this tragedy once again. It’s simply heartbreaking.
Overall, I think Inheritance is absolutely essential once you play through the main campaign. It’s short, it has three different endings and it showcases some of the best that Layers of Fear has to offer.
Now, I know what you might be thinking. “You must hate this game so much to criticize many points.” Well, no. I don’t. I don’t even think Layers of Fear is a bad game. I’m just one of those people who doesn’t think the story is that particularly well written, though there were a few moments that were worth it for me. The game suffers from quite a bit from lost potential and horror clichés, and unfortunately falls under generic horror. It’s really too bad seeing how there’s a lot of effort in making the sinister and surreal artwork that really sell Layers of Fear. But for curiosity’s sake, this game is worth at least one playthrough if you love horror games.
Layers of Fear$19.99
- As a walking simulator, it's competent but brings nothing new to the table.
- The art direction is absolutely fantastic.
- The music is nice, but the sound design is a bit lackluster.
- The Inheritance DLC is well worth sitting through for its visuals and even emotional involvement.
- The visuals can get a little too intense at times, making the game hard to sit through for long periods of time.
- The game isn't really that scary if you can easily sit through the jumpscares.
- While the story is okay, it lacks real tension. Also, the artist character is unlikable (and unrelatable for that matter).
- Getting the alternate endings is a convoluted process that requires very specific tasks to be completed.