Around two years ago, I went to Universal Studios Orlando for their annual Halloween festivities. After a day of riding coasters and other attractions, I decided it was a great idea to do every haunted house in one go. It wasn't. By the time I got to the end of them all, I knew that I was supposed to be scared, and could see the clear effort being made to scare me, but it was for naught. None of the tricks worked, outside of an occasional jump scare. My friends and I joked that we had "fear fatigue."
If you want to experience fear fatigue, you don't have to shell out the big bucks for an expensive vacation to an overpriced theme park. You can get the same feeling with 20 bucks and a little over three hours of your time, thanks to Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Aspyr Media
Available On: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One (reviewed)
Layers of Fear is a game that knows very much what it wants to be. The problem is, what it wants to be is something that five million other games also want to be, and Bloober Team does very little to distinguish itself from the competition.
See, this title is another in the "walk around in first-person while stuff jumps out you" vein, the kind that PewdiePie and Markiplier count on as the bread and butter of their careers. And while that's all well and good, your game has to have a lot more than just that if you want it to be enjoyable for people who are shelling out money for your product.
Unfortunately, that's precisely the problem with this game: there's really nothing much to it.
Players take the role of a painter who's well below the threshhold of what most would consider "sane." He's ranting to himself in his home, using pieces of flesh and muscle tissue to construct a painting of his wife, who's probably dead, and probably even the body he's using to make his painting. This isn't a spoiler, by the way, it's pretty much abundantly obvious from the get-go.
While this is going on, he's getting haunted by... something, I guess. Is he having delusions? Is his dead wife trying to kill him from beyond the grave? Is his most likely dead baby trying to seek vengeance on him? It's never quite clear, and while I'm all about some murky narratives, this isn't a murky tale. It's actually just poorly told.
See, we're never really given a good reason why we're supposed to care about anything that's going on. Yeah, a woman getting burned alive and a husband struggling to take care of her kind of sucks. Sure, a slow descent into alcoholism fueled by obsessive perfectionism is sad. Dead babies are also not great. But what makes this woman, this man, or this baby so important? We're never given many reasons why, and because of this, the whole story feels like a lot of angst with absolutely no substance behind it.
"Angst" is a choice word here, because frankly, everything this game expected me to find chilling or sad just came across as artificially edgy as all get-out. Dead babies, crying women, screaming ghosts, bloody suicide, creepy dolls... it all feels so forced. Stuff is trotted out that I'm supposed to be afraid of, but I couldn't help but stifle laughter at some moments, and to shrug off others entirely. At one point in the game, I guided the protagonist down a hallway in which a walking doll killed itself in front of me, and another, books flew off the shelf in my face. Both times, I didn't stop. I didn't jump. I didn't scream. I just kept walking forward, because it was so uninspired that I couldn't bring myself to even care.
Speaking of walking, Layers of Fear is very much what many would call a "walking simulator." You walk down a hall, then you open a door. You click on a thing, then go back out the door, then the hallway is different. You walk down that different hallway, something may or may not jump out at you, then you go into a different room. The whole game can be boiled down to that, except for some late-game puzzles which are more monotonous than challenging. You can't really even die. Oh, sure, a ghost can kill you, or, in one instance, you can fall of a ledge, but in most cases, the game will actually fast-forward you to the next part. There's no challenge whatsoever.
I'm usually okay with games like this. Dear Esther was a game I quite enjoyed, and the recent Firewatch was a literal hiking simulator. But those games have something that Layers of Fear lacks: a compelling reason to keep walking. If I'm going to sit with the analog stick held upward for three to four hours, I want a damn good reason to do so. And if your reason is that, occasionally, something might pop out and go "boo," I'm sorry, but that's not enough.
What's really painful, though, is that when this game isn't trying to force jump scares and edgy visuals down our gullets, it's actually a brilliantly designed little thing. It takes the visual trickery of PT and manages to outdo it ten-fold. Scenery changes on a dime. Stuff randomly appears behind you. Rooms change as you turn the camera. It's all remarkably impressive, and ridiculously meticulous for an indie team.
These moments of visual trickery manage to convince you that there's light at the end of the tunnel, and I'd be lying if I said the game, as a whole, was worth writing off entirely. There are some genuinely unique things at play here, ideas I'd love to see implemented in future games. Layers of Fear, in a lot of ways, feels like a blueprint for a greater experience. Maybe even an experience that Bloober could pull of if they managed to overhaul their storytelling and gameplay chops.
There's a moment in Layers of Fear where the player is walking down a hallway, and over the doorway, there's a warning. "Don't look back." Of course, this sets up a jump scare, and if you don't turn around, you get a trophy/achievement that congratulates you on heeding the warning.
I would, in turn, give Bloober Team the same warning. They have the framework and concepts for a good game here, but none of them ever come together. Clearly, however, they are a talented and crafty bunch of people with a ton of bright ideas. That being said, I'd say that they shouldn't look back at this package, and instead, focus on making a new game that expands upon the good stuff here, and leaves the monotonous pacing, rote plot and non-existent gameplay in the dust.
- Impressive visual trickery.
- Production values are significant.
- Predictable scares.
- Story goes nowhere.
- Cliche visuals and scares.
- Rote formula and uninspired progression.