Video Game Review: “Layers of Fear”

If you’re into horror gaming, you have likely seen Bloober Team’s ascension as a game developer. Some of you, I know, are more on the fence about them. I’ve seen the criticism about their usual style of gameplay and I understand it. All that aside for now, no one can deny the footprint Bloober has made in such a short period. They developed a well-received adaptation of the Blair Witch, which I’ll try to review shortly, a Blade Runner like videogame with The Observer, and the psychological horror videogame The Medium. Now, I’m hearing rumors about them having talks with Konami, which makes you think a Silent Hill videogame might be on the horizon. A lot of things to be excited about if you are a fan of Bloober, and, in general, I don’t think there has ever been a better time to have a controller in your hand.

Layers of Fear is the videogame where it all began for Bloober Team, and thus, I can’t think of a better videogame to talk about to begin our journey with them on the Nightmare Shift. From The Medium to the apparent conversations with Konami, the developers have felt vaguely intertwined with Silent Hill in a lot of ways, but even that started with this videogame. Announced and developed shortly after the cancellation of Silent Hills, Layers of Fear feels like a direct response to that cancellation, borrowing a handful of elements of Konami’s P.T. release, and creating new and different out of it.

Released in early 2016, I bought and played through Layers of Fear in full, but never wrote a review about it. In truth, that was a shame, because it likely would have been the most positive review I could’ve written for it.

Layers of Fear tells the story of an artist who is obsessed with completing his masterpiece. As you’d surmise given the genre, the artists’ creation is made from less than hygienic parts. Be it special blood imbued paint, or whatever else goes through the sadistic man’s mind, as you wander the corridors of his home, you will begin piecing together the story and finding more about his descent into madness.

Similar to P.T., and a lot of horror videogames we’ve seen since, Layers of Fear plays in a mostly cinematic way (“a walking simulator” is how it is, perhaps, often unlovingly referred). This is not a stealth videogame like Outlast, where you can’t defend yourself, and instead, have to inch your way through or run like hell. Nor is this a survival horror. Do you remember The Evil Within? That was basically a Resident Evil 4 style videogame, right? But, do you remember the instances where you would come to a wall, have nowhere to go, then, turn around and discover the world had changed? Sometimes you’d even turn back around and the world had changed again! Or when you’re falling from some really tall place, and, out of nowhere, it changes from falling to rolling, and you’re suddenly right-side up again, as though the world tilted? It’s that kind of visual trickery and manipulation that Layers of Fear operates with. I prefer to, instead of calling it “a walking simulator”, call it a “parlor trick game”.

In Layers of Fear, you walk, you look at scenery, you interact with objects and parts of that scenery, and you piece together the narrative within. That may seem like an oversimplification, but it really isn’t. This may be a deal breaker for many of you, but is something I consider myself open-minded toward. I don’t want every horror videogame I play to be this way and I feel like too many horror videogames do it lately, but I can understand the appeal and have enjoyed some of the genuine moments that have come with it. It plays largely to an old-school, minimalist sensibility, and, for that, it has a contradictive appearance of feeling both new and classical. In the film industry, horror films had to find ways to produce off a shoestring budget, whereas with videogames, although the budget remains restrictive, there’re new ways to interact and engage viewers. This isn’t always taken advantage of to the fullest. If I see one more goddamn slamming lockers scene in a horror videogame, I might lose it, but sometimes it can produce unique spins on old tropes.

When I first played Layers of Fear, I was way more receptive to its approach. I can remember genuine awe at some of its camera tricks. When I played it again shortly after, I feel like the air had been let out of the balloon, so to speak. This is to say I don’t feel Layers of Fear has a lot of replay value to it. That in mind, playing it half-a-decade later, I found a lot of its shine had returned to it. Likely because I was no longer able to telegraph scenes before they happened. It wasn’t able to recapture that same thing that made it special in my first playthrough. The cat was out of the bag, and these horror theatrics are far more commonplace now. However, I do think it makes some legitimately creative decisions and intelligent game-design that stands above its initial shock novelty.

The story is a mixed-bag. I often enjoy videogames that spoon feed lore bits with small excerpts and clippings, etc., but, lately, I feel we’ve seen that teaspoon become a ladle, often succumbing players to long, tedious exposition that they couldn’t organically display in-game. Layers of Fear isn’t as bad about that as some are, and, for the most part, I think it does well at telling the story it has. Still, the story of a grief-stricken / obsessed artist has been done to death. It has become such an archetype that it might as well be in half of every horror videogame ever created, be it, at least, in some form. I don’t hate the archetype, per se, and I think it’s beloved for a reason. The idea someone could lose themselves in their obsession and self-indulgency, either because they lost something or because they never had it to begin with. However, it has been done so much that seeing it as the main-focal makes Layers of Fear feel dated and a little bland. Be it Sander Cohen in BioShock or Stefano in Evil Within 2, this type of cliché works best in a supporting role because of how fleeting of a novelty it is. Layers of Fear tells its story skillfully and thoughtfully, but it is a story I’ve already heard skillfully and thoughtfully told. It doesn’t bring a lot of new insights or ideas into it.

Layers of Fear is a solid videogame and I would recommend it to fans of the “parlor tricks” / “walking simulator” genre, or for individuals on the fence about checking one of them out. It has more than a handful of thoughtfully crafted scenes and I appreciated the amount of thought and attention that went into them. It plays at a fairly high-standard, if that’s a concern of yours, and having played in three times, I can only recall a handful of glitches along the way (only one real glitch in my most recent playthrough). It’s short and sweet (about 3 – 5 hours) and they are not charging much for the cost of admission ($20 – and it is on-sale frequently). It is not a contender for anyone’s “Best of”, but it is an admirable, worthwhile freshman effort for Bloober Team.

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