Layers of Fear is a visually haunting game that builds tension and drama through its themes of love, art, and mental illness. Unfortunately it squanders the fear that it builds by removing any clear point of failure and making you hunt for its story.
Losing your love
Entering your old house, Layers of Fear begins uneventfully. The old, wood paneled building is gorgeous: filled with oil-paintings that prove a central theme. Wandering around, trying to find the key to your workshop, you realize that the sense of unease you have is purely based on expectation: you are completely safe.
And you should take this opportunity to investigate, because these rooms are the canvas on which Layers of Fear creates its fear.
Your movement is slow and limping. Sifting through the houses many cupboards and draws, using tactile controls similar to those of Amnesia, you discover this is because your character has an ill-fitted artificial leg. It's a tiny point, but serves to do so much. You feel physically invested in the effort of movement, while the scrawled on receipt for the leg also reveals your character's volatile impatience.
Tiny things like this permeate the whole experience to create a rich, but obscure, narrative. Wine bottles everywhere, small notes, sounds, running water, all subtly trying to reveal the events of the house and its one time inhabitants.
Finding the key you enter your workshop and it becomes clear where your dread has emanating from. While the room is mostly in good order, but messages are on the walls and paint is flecked everywhere. The artists torture is clear, the sheet covered canvas at the center of the room.
Pulling the sheet down reveals the foundations of a painting, and a Steam Achievement pops-up “It was covered for a reason”. Normally this wouldn't be something worth mentioning, but as you take in the words, the room begins to contorts, with a new message “Finish it” appearing above the room's entrance.
Art is an imitation of an imitation
Stepping out, everything has changed, and you must attempt to complete your work.
You are plunged into a world of looping, cyclical horrors. Layers of Fear does a brilliant job of warping, changing, and reusing the rooms and areas of the house to tell its tale. But they are out of order, contorted, and often nightmarish - here physical and spatial laws mean nothing.
You may find yourself in a square room in which each wall has a door. Behind these portals are brick walls, with no escape you return to the first door only to find it gone. Panicked, you begin to spin around, searching for an escape, only to be confronted by a newly appeared corridor that crawls off into darkness.
This is tame example of the physics defying, art-and-psychosis reality-bending that Layers of Fear has ready for you. It draws on a great many sources to do this, including elements of Kojima’s now infamous P.T. But it’s blending of the Gothic setting, impressive art-themed visual design, and subtly eerie audio, manage to set it apart.
It's fortunate its visual elements and story prove so engrossing, because many of its jump scares feel tired. While turning around and being met by changed environment and a jarring violin chord makes you jump, it is not as clever as it once was. Add to this a stalking monster that seems unable to even slow your progress, and the Layers of Fear soon starts to feel like a ghost train: feel scared and enjoy the ride till it's over, but don't expect any consequence to your actions.
Don’t look under too many layers
Layers of Fear is a terrifying ride that lets you move through its disturbing environments and twisted story of an artist’s descent into madness. In an ideal world the game’s inability to hide its lack of choice would be better concealed, but the mystery of its horrors and the suspense this creates are more than enough to keep you engaged - and test your sanity - throughout.