Review – Layers of Fear
Despite being a massive horror fan, I have never actually played any Layers of Fear game in the past. It’s a series that has got a bit of a reputation for being loved or hated by those in the horror communities. Our own Leo Faria wasn’t a big fan of the three games he had reviewed in the past, being the Switch and PSVR ports of the original, as well as the Switch port of the sequel. This new entry, just named Layers of Fear, was the perfect chance for me to dive into the franchise, in an odd remake/sequel hybrid of sorts.
So what exactly is Layers of Fear? Well, that’s actually somewhat complicated. The series delves into the maddening minds of struggling creative individuals as they are taunted by a mysterious entity unravelling their dark and twisted lives. Despite sharing the name with the first game of the series, this Layers is in fact a remake of the entire series as a whole so far, being one of the first publicly available games to take advantage of Unreal Engine 5. On top of this, it adds an additional chapter that bridges the gaps between the previously released games.
The Painter and The Daughter
The original Layers of Fear game told the story of a painter. He knows what he must do and complete his “masterpiece”. As the game goes on, you delve further into his twisted mind as you uncover the past events and what truly happened. Meanwhile, the DLC takes place years later, as his daughter journeys back to her old family home to uncover the truth of what happened.
It’s a very P.T. inspired game, in which you will creep down hallways for the vast majority of the runtime. But the environments will shift according to your actions. Enter a room and look around; when you leave, you could be transported to an entirely different area. It’s all fairly linear and used to great effect. The best moments are the puzzles that make use of this mechanic, as moving through a never-ending series of doors and picking up clues to escape it is a really interesting idea. However, the game is more interested in making it a theme park ride that happens every single time you enter a room. Eventually, the one good idea is stretched out and used to the point it becomes kind of annoying. Removing all tension from the game when you know it’s going to happen.
However, this isn’t exactly a one-to-one remake, and there are some sections that have been tweaked or completely overhauled. It’ll still be a fairly familiar experience though, just with the inclusion of a brand new mechanic. A lantern will be picked up early on in the game, which can be used to light up areas and solve a few puzzles. On top of this, the ghost-like entity that would chase you before can be stopped for a few moments, allowing you to escape. Whilst it’s nice to have an additional mechanic, it really doesn’t bring anything to the experience, as these sections are usually incredibly brief.
Taking place on a cruise ship, the Layers of Fear sequel takes us into the mind of an actor, in a story that is pretty independent of the original game, with only one character linking them together. You play as a failing actor, mocked relentlessly by the director throughout. It’s certainly an interesting story and probably my favourite out of the ones present in this collection, with a new nice change of scenery to go alongside it, taking place almost entirely on a cruise ship.
However, despite the shift in scenery, The Actor’s story will be playing with a lot of the same tricks. Namely with the ever-shifting environment that will get tiresome after a while. Early on, you will get a flashlight that does some cool stuff other than lighting really dark areas. The mannequins scattered around the place will sometimes perform some actions; using the flashlight on them will activate said actions.
The Writer and The Wife
So with the two main games making the bulk of the content, there is still some additional content that is brand new for the series as a whole. On one side you’ve got the final chapter of the painter’s story, which shows the events through the mind of his wife. Then we’ve got the overarching story about a struggling writer who retreats to a lighthouse to finish a book, but things don’t go exactly as planned. No, this isn’t Alan Wake. For the writer’s story, you will be returning to the lighthouse periodically as the story unfolds, peeling back the layers over the course of the roughly ten hour story.
The Wife’s story is a pretty straightforward DLC chapter that unlocks after you completed the painter’s story. Delving into this you will recount the events that lead up to the escape from her husband. It’s a decent enough chapter that throws you straight into it with very little build-up. Instead of the lantern, you will pick up a flashlight in the opening minutes with the same ghost threat as before. Whilst it starts strong with an interesting use of the shifting environments in puzzle form it quickly devolves back into walking in a straight line.
As for the writer, this is integrated into the full story. Periodically you will be pulled away from the other games to unravel the writer’s story and how she connects to them. This goes deeper into the Rat Queen, who is the ominous entity that taunts the protagonists throughout, but much more present here. It’s certainly an interesting idea, integrated to tie two otherwise completely unrelated events together and elevates this collection above a simple re-release.
Layers of Fear
Each of these games has its own strengths and weaknesses, but Layers of Fear is underwhelming as a franchise. The biggest issue is with the overly repetitive and unengaging gameplay that rarely moves away from tedium. It assaults you with long stretches of nothing but interacting with objects around the environment and picking up notes, of which I barely read anyway, because very quickly you realise there are just so many. The shifting environments get tiresome after one game, and having them all here really exaggerates that point. By the time I got to Layers of Fear 2 I was fed up with. However, the stories are still somewhat engaging, thanks to some strong environmental storytelling that doesn’t always spell things out for you, though they are often predictable and drag on way longer than they need to.
As for the horror factor, I was pretty disappointed. Whilst Bloober can clearly craft very tense and atmospheric environments, the horror (or lack thereof) just doesn’t work for me here. There are moments through each of the chapters that worked really well. The mannequins in the actor’s story have some genuinely creepy moments. And there’s some real potential for the shifting environments to do some great stuff but there’s an overreliance on jump scares but the problem is very few of them actually land. I never really felt scared, but just bored. For better P.T. inspired scares, I’d recommend checking out Visage or MADiSON.
Whilst I have a lot of criticisms over this series there’s one thing that is undeniably great about this iteration: its visuals are absolutely beautiful. The game makes solid work of the Unreal Engine 5’s features, like ray tracing and improved textural and polygonal count. There are some amazing moments or effects that actually blew me away. Then, as each game progresses through the mind of its protagonist, it becomes more and more twisted, and this is reflected beautifully in the environment, fitting with the game’s specific themes.
Then we have the sound design. Often times Layers of Fear shows some restraint with very little going on except for creeping noises or a subtle soundtrack. Until it doesn’t, with loud noises and jump scares that simply fail to, well, scare. The voice acting isn’t much better unable to convince us of a person losing their minds, often times bordering on hilarious.
Layers of Fear’s ambition was to bring the whole series into one cohesive package, with some additional content. In concept, the premise was interesting. Unfortunately, as horror titles, they really don’t stand up at all, being completely devoid of any scare factor. Bloober Team just doesn’t make the most of some of the more unique and interesting concepts that pop up throughout. However, the new fantastic visuals provide some tensely atmospheric environments, so if you’re willing to give it a try, there’s at least to look forward to.
Layers of Fear make really solid use of the Unreal Engine 5.1 toolset to create an incredibly immersive game world. The effects are at times subtle, but add up to something really impressive.
Walking around and picking up notes with really not much else here to keep you engaged and worst of all it’s not really scary.
Creepy and atmospheric sounds don’t make up for the voice acting, which is, at times, hilarious.
Layers of Fear has some interesting ideas and an engaging premise for the series, but it’s just so dull to play.
Final Verdict: 6.0
Layers of Fear is available now on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.
Reviewed on PS5.
A copy of Layers of Fear was provided by the publisher.