Review: Layers of Fear – Satisfyingly Scary

Layers of Fear, previously released on Steam as an Early Access title, is now on Xbox One. This “walking simulator” is a disturbing exploration of diminishing sanity punctuated by a thrilling variety of fear-inducing mechanisms new and old. It acts as an interactive horror movie, one unencumbered by forced combat or pointless enemies, delivering one of the most satisfying virtual scares I’ve had to date.

I went into Layers of Fear not expecting much, or rather, not expecting anything at all. I had no idea what it was about outside of being a horror game. Within the first few minutes I discovered it was a typical “explore this possibly haunted house while piecing together a backstory from the clues left behind” affair, such as you see in the user made games and mods over at Desura. However it quickly became clear that this is the newer, better version of the old “waking up in a haunted house” cliche, one that relies on more sophisticated tricks to deliver the treat. What results is an impressive example of an otherwise played out trope.

Layers of Fear begins as so many horror things do: waking up in an unfamiliar place. The player character is alone on a dark rainy night and trying to make sense of his surroundings. As you begin to explore the rooms and corridors around him, a story begins to take shape, told through the notes, drawings, and newspaper clippings left behind.

While games of this nature usually rely on fake-outs, jump scares and unsettling imagery to deliver their thrills, Layers of Fear carefully blends these elements with flawless level design to delicately scratch away at the player’s sanity. Ever see something out of the corner of your eye and when you turn to look, nothing is there? In Layers of Fear this is used to brilliant effect, luring the player into the foreboding sense that they are losing their own minds. You may turn your head to examine a window, only to find a door has disappeared when you turn back. A painting stared at too long will melt into a grotesque disfigurement, its pigment bleeding into the ground below. Each room is designed down to the player’s every movement. As the protagonist’s hallucinations become more vivid, leaving you startled and shaken, so too will the shifting layout of the house, the darkened corridors and unexplained noises, the door you saw a second ago but is no longer there.

The story itself has some issues; the game is not what you would call subtle. The protagonist is–stop me if you heard this one–a creative, moody patriarch who begins to abuse his family as he loses his grasp on reality (The Shining, anyone?) The delivery of the narrative can be a bit heavy-handed, not leaving much room for nuance in the tortured audio clips and hastily scribbled notes and sketches found throughout the house. Still, I was very disappointed when my preview copy ended at about 75% completion. Despite its faults I still wanted to see how the story ended.

There’s more to Layers of Fear than initially meets the eye, and I’m pleasantly surprised at its quality. Playing the preview version was a nice way to get my Halloween horror fill. I highly recommend it.

Layers of Fear was developed and published by Bloober Team and released October 25 for Xbox One and retails for $12.99. A build of the game was provided by the publisher.