Lay­ers Of Fear

De­vel­oper Bloober Team Pub­lisher Aspyr For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Re­lease Out now


PC, PS4, Xbox One

There is real tragedy at the core of Bloober Team’s Lay­ers Of Fear, but it has noth­ing to do with its histri­on­i­cally de­liv­ered tale of an al­co­holic artist’s de­scent into iso­la­tion and mad­ness. The game’s cen­tral con­ceit – which sees a di­lap­i­dated old house con­tin­u­ally con­tort and shift around you – is ex­e­cuted so exquisitely, with such re­lent­less in­ven­tive­ness, that you spend con­sid­er­ably more time ex­cit­edly charg­ing for the next door to coo at an­other clever trick than you do be­ing scared of what might lurk be­hind it.

But the dis­ap­point­ing ab­sence of any sus­tained sense of fear has as much to do with the hack­neyed hor­ror sta­ples that are wheeled out to com­ple­ment this spa­tial chi­canery. A jit­tery, lank-haired and black-eyed woman. A pro­ces­sion of an­i­mate dolls. Skit­ter­ing rats that are meant to be dis­con­cert­ing but some­how come over as cute. It’s as if the stu­dio didn’t have enough con­fi­dence in its un­set­tling cen­tral idea and pan­icked. And then there’s the voice act­ing, which is ris­i­ble to the point of fi­asco through­out.

But scrape away th­ese fail­ings and you’re left with one of the smartest ex­am­ples of en­vi­ron­men­tal mis­di­rec­tion ever com­mit­ted to code. This isn’t sim­ply a case of go­ing through a door, clos­ing it, and then find­ing – sur­prise – a new area has been loaded when you next open it (al­though there’s plenty of that, too). This is close-up magic per­formed with grin-in­duc­ing brag­gado­cio, ca­pa­ble of wrong-foot­ing you over and over. Rooms change in sub­tle and con­spic­u­ous ways when you turn your back, and then again when your at­ten­tion is drawn. Ev­ery time you try to catch the shift­ing floor­plan out, it’s one blue­print ahead of you.

The re­sult is a pow­er­ful ero­sion of any con­fi­dence in your own sense of di­rec­tion. The fact that ev­ery­thing hap­pens in such close quar­ters, fla­grantly dar­ing you to try to spot the method, proves in­tox­i­cat­ing. The down­side of this dis­re­spect for the laws of physics is that any sense of place is also com­pro­mised as you pace through sim­i­lar-look­ing cor­ri­dors and rooms that all feel vaguely fa­mil­iar, al­ways lead­ing back to the artist stu­dio from which your night­mare be­gins.

The cor­ri­dors cer­tainly look nice, but to ease your pas­sage we rec­om­mend switch­ing off the ex­ces­sive con­troller ac­cel­er­a­tion and head-bob op­tions. Do­ing so won’t al­le­vi­ate the os­cil­lat­ing fram­er­ate is­sues that be­set the game, but you won’t feel quite as nau­seous.

What could’ve been a new high-wa­ter mark for hor­ror is weighed down by a litany of clang­ing mis­steps, but while the game’s many prob­lems con­spire to tar­nish its in­no­va­tions, the lat­ter are so far ahead of other games’ tricks that they daz­zle none­the­less.

The game con­tin­u­ally toys with your un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment, but smartly loops back to – and ref­er­ences – fa­mil­iar spa­ces as it does so. The ef­fect is to fur­ther dis­con­cert you as your grasp on re­al­ity slips away

MIXED SUC­CESS Lay­ers Of Fear is at its best when it doesn’t lean on es­tab­lished hor­ror ideas. The game’s en­vi­ron­men­tal smarts are the prin­ci­pal ex­am­ple of it break­ing new ground, but Bloober Team’s artists have also hit on a sin­gu­lar aes­thetic. Art and art-mak­ing be­come a re­cur­ring theme as paint­ings melt and dis­tort, and oil paints splat­ter cor­ri­dors colour­fully. It’s a kind of in­ven­tive­ness that de­serves to be the back­drop for more orig­i­nal hor­ror themes than the game can de­liver.

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