Layers of Fear (2016) Review

Layers of Fear is more of a walk through a horror story than it is a game. As such, the story is a big part of the experience and so I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. It's difficult to review a game without disclosing a few details, though, so if you want to experience Layers of Fear free of any preconceived notions of what to expect, then you should probably stop reading this review at this point and just go and play the game.

For those of you still with me, Layers of Fear is a look into the tortured mind of an artist driven mad by a series of tragedies in his life. As he struggles to complete a portrait that he believes will set everything right again, he wanders his home replaying the events of the past in his mind as his delusions take an ever greater hold of him. From a gameplay perspective, you will walk through the artist's large home looking for interactive objects and documents that will help you to piece together the timeline of events that led to the artist's current state of mind. The exploration aspect of this is for the most part quite linear - you'll find one exit from a room and as you take it you'll be barred from returning to the room that you've left. At certain key points you will find that you have a choice of exits to take which the game does to encourage you to play through it again, both to find all of the game's collectible items and to allow you to have a chance to experience a different one of the game's three possible endings. Now it may seem like a game set entirely within a single, albeit large, home would have you passing through the same rooms numerous times, and that's indeed the case here. However, shifts between the rooms in their present and past states, as well as surreal versions of the rooms that are created out of the artist's madness, keep things in an a state of flux, as does the fact that the floorplan changes to suit to the artist's thoughts and you never know which room is awaiting you through the next door.

Layers of Fear (2016) screenshot 7

Minor puzzles will occasionally bar your way, but they aren't anything that will provide much of a challenge to the average gamer. Often it's simply a matter of reading a combination written on a wall or note and then entering it into a lock. More commonly it's a matter of looking at the right object or part of the room to trigger a sequence that will open the next exit for you.

The other major gameplay element in Layers of Fear is opening literally hundreds of drawers and cabinet doors in the hope of discovering a fragment of paper or an object that will give you another snippet of the story behind the game. This process can certainly wear on you over the course of the game, and I can't help but think that the game could probably be completed in a little over an hour if you just forgo all of the snooping through drawers. Adding to the tedium is the interface for all of this. The cursor is a single tiny white dot in the center of the screen that must be lined up just right to open a drawer or to see if you can pick up an object in the drawer once you have it opened. Furthermore, the angle at which you're facing an item seems to have an effect on whether or not you will see the icon indicating that you can pick up an object, and I'm sure that I missed items while playing simply because I didn't properly trigger that icon.

As for the story and the experience, I'll begin by classify the game's atmosphere as more creepy or unsettling than outright scary. The game relies heavily on jump scares, and repeating the same style of jump scares throughout the game, so how actually scary you'll find the game will depend on how you generally react to jump scares. I found some of the visuals and mad visions to be creepier than the jump scares and found myself wishing for more of the former and less of the latter in the game. Also, the game has a relatively small bag of tricks, and by the time you've played through a couple of chapters you'll know what's coming before it happens the rest of the way through.

Layers of Fear (2016) screenshot 9

I did enjoy piecing together the snippets of the past and tying them together with some of the visions and encounters in the house to form a narrative in mind. There's certainly room for interpretation here, and it was fun visiting online discussions to read other peoples' theories once I completed the game. Conversely, if you're the kind of person who needs a nice and solid conclusion to a story, then you should be aware that the game will not offer that to you.

In spite of the endless drawer nuisance and lack of any real challenge from the game's puzzles the game is recommendable from a visual novel perspective, although this recommendation comes with a major caveat - it is a buggy game. I had to restart chapters on several occasions because of bugs that stopped my progress cold. Once I was stuck behind a chair in a room and couldn't move anywhere. On another occasion, I was stuck in a room with a blocked exit and could not figure out any way to open the door. After reloading the level and returning to the room, an interactive icon appeared on a chain that wasn't there on my first visit to the room and all I had to do to exit the room was to pull on the chain. I completed one of the game's achievements and it's listed as 100% accomplished in the achievements app, and yet the game did not award the achievement and its points to me. The most egregious bug I encountered, though, happened to me during the game's epilog after I had completed it for the first time. I was walking through the house when the game informed me that I had disconnected the controller. Well, the controller was not disconnected and worked just fine when I popped out of the game to the dashboard. When I returned to the game, the message was still there and the game was locked. The only thing to do at that point was to close the game. After restarting it, I found that it had wiped out all of my progress. Every chapter checkpoint was gone, and my only option was to start the game all over again from the beginning. Needless to say, if you're going to play Layers of Fear, then you're going to have to have a high tolerance for bugs that are going to force you to restart chapters or the entire game itself. The bugs here are both frequent and critical enough that they have had a large impact on the final rating I am giving to the game.

Final Rating: 60% - Unfortunately the game's bugs are the scariest thing of all in this horror story.


Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.