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.