While I have never shied away from horror games, I will be the first to admit that I find a sadistic pleasure when I find content that can truly send chills down my spine and fill me with trepidation, albeit temporarily, over what could be lurking in the darkness just beyond our limited vision. Ever since I was a child and read my first HP Lovecraft novel, the unseen horrors of the supernatural and arcane have fascinated me. That said, having consumed a wealth of content over the years I have grown hardened to some of the more mainstream ‘horror’ experiences and getting that adrenaline fix is getting harder and harder to find.
So, it is no small feat when I say that Layers of Fear is a truly chilling experience that gave me that long sought after shot of anxiety that so few games nowadays can instil in me. Layers of Fear places you in the shoes of a turn of the century artist, who having a fair degree of success finds his art become a dark reflection of his mental state, following some particularly harrowing events and a distinct inclination for alcohol. Scorned by the critics for his current works, he has locked himself away in his dilapidated estate, hoping to re-capture his former glory and create a masterwork worthy of his skills. It is into this world you step, guiding him initially through the house before setting up in front of his easel to try to invoke his genius onto the canvas.
As you source your composition all is not as it seems. To complete each stage of the painting you must wander this crumbling home in order to find inspiration, but the house around you distorts and transforms. The halls of the building stretch out into infinity in front of you one minute, then shrink to a dead end when you turn to retread your steps, while entering a room can find you turn around to find the door through which you entered mysteriously vanished, with manic scribbling etched on the walls and floors of rooms disappearing when you glance away for a second. You must navigate this surreal maze, created either by the artists burgeoning psychosis or an occult force imbuing its influence in order to keep you from your muse.
This distortion and confusion is the key to the game, with a convoluted path leading to your final goal twisting and warping the moment it leaves your line of sight. As you explore you unravel more of the artist’s story, his family and the events that shaped his mind-set, as well as giving glimpses into their motivations during their time in the house and following the key event that led up to his decline into alcohol and anger.
The sense of unease perpetuated throughout is made all the more grounded through clever mechanics and superlative graphics. The house looks realistic, from the fruit, vegetables and cooking utensils in the kitchen, to the books, shelves and furnishings lining corridors and rooms. Everything is perfectly proportioned, which may not seem like much, but failing to perfect the scale of items can cause a severing of the immersion, which a game like this dwells so heavily upon. Even when the room around you melts and twisted visions burst forth from once languid surroundings, a sense of believability is held by the minutiae of details upon which the developers have focused. Even the simplicity of imbuing a perceivable limp into your characters movement draws you into the world and deceives your senses.
The influences of Amnesia, Outlast and other first person survival horrors in recent years are readily apparent in this game, alongside distinct nods to the greats of Lovecraft and Poe within its setting and themes. This leads me to one of my few niggles about the game. With the previously mentioned titles, there was always some malevolent force, just out of sight that you were constantly reminded of moment to moment throughout the game. Layers of Fear, having focused more on the puzzle and environment, lacks that same sense of urgency.
Thankfully the core puzzles are complex without being frustrating and the environmental maze is relatively straightforward, so on very few occasions did I stop or get stuck long enough to be reminded that I could quite easily take my time to solve the conundrum in front of me. The game paces itself very well, and a single playthrough will clock you in at a respectable five hours.
With memorabilia, notes and letters scattered throughout that reveals more about your characters history, there is every reason to jump back in for another try once you are finished, although groups of triggers in some instances are too closely packed, causing you to select the wrong piece of the interactive environment. This is especially true of the many chest of drawers in the game, with each drawer trigger very close to the other, you can easily find yourself moving akwardly back and forth until you hit the sweet spot to open the correct drawer.
All in all, Layers of Fear is a masterfully crafted experience tracking the downward spiral of the main protagonist, and leaves enough questions over at the end to keep you going back for further insight into what it all means, and how much of it is real or imagined.