The mind of a tortured artist is never going to be a pleasant one. Van Gogh may have painted some rocking sunflowers but his head was full of darkness. But Van Gogh’s mind is nothing compared to the artist in Layers of Fear, and it’s his shoes and mind you’re going to step into. Welcome to the best nightmare you’re likely to have this year.
In Layers of Fear you must complete a painting, your magnum opus, and it has to be perfect. Unfortunately a creative block prevents you from finishing your masterpiece. Your studio is just one room in a large manor house and as you roam the halls and rooms searching for inspiration you are driven into deep despair and madness. Clues along the way will alert you to the fact that you’re not the sanest cuckoo in the nest anyway, but there is much more to your story. Layers of Fear steers away from the usual eeek-a-ghost-now-I’m-dead gameplay and instead presents a story-driven scenario. As your psychosis takes over your mind, what you initially perceive as your own lunacy starts to occasionally make a twisted sort of logic. Now I’ve never crossed the line from being slightly odd in the head to total madness, but it seems reasonable that things you experience during a psychotic break would make sense to you, even if they don’t to anyone else. Layers of Fear cleverly captures this and gives you a terrifying glimpse of a dark and diseased mind.
Although there is no fear of player death, Layers of Fear is still a chilling experience. Even on a nice sunny day, that house with its creaking floorboards and ominous but perfectly innocent dark corners is enough scare most normal people. But in the dark with a storm rumbling and your creative mind doing backflips, it’s terrifying. There’s a hint of a Lovecraftian nightmare with hallways that lead back to where you started and a general feeling that you’ve stepped into a monstrous dimension. Think P.T. on a much grander scale and that’s what you’ve got here. Doors suddenly slam shut, floors collapse, walls melt away and paintings do much more than merely seem like they’re watching you. Every step is a potential jump scare and every unlocked door is a passage to yet something else that’s going to test just how high-pitched you can scream. Even just walking across the room, trying a locked door and turning back is likely to result in brown trousers.
Games that are more about exploring and discovery tend to need a bit of legwork. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture springs to mind, where you’re wandering about trying to uncover a story and a mystery by triggering events. Layers of Fear is along these same lines, but getting lost is not an option as the exploration element is incredibly intuitive. You have an entire mansion to explore but its openness is a bit of an illusion. The environment reacts to your presence and will change accordingly. If you find yourself doubling back, it’s because the game wants to push you that way, not because you’ve taken the wrong turn and you’re about to spend the next fifteen minutes backtracking. Everything happens for a reason, and if you do get a bit stuck, just observing what’s going on around you will hold the key to moving on. In this way, the game has a great flow that allows you to creep ever forward without going around in circles (unless the game literally wants you to do that). The lack of open exploration we’ve come to expect from these types of story-driven games may very well put some people off, but the guided structure actually works very well. Wandering off in the dark is great in many horror games, but Layers of Fear is more about intense bursts of panic that eventually lead to a reality that is far worse than a creepy doll with glowing demon eyes. Being pulled into its inevitability feels right for this experience.
The graphics are damn nice, realistic, and not so dark that you can’t see what you’re doing. Many parts of the game involve scenes and objects melting and transitioning into freaky-deaky stuff and on the whole the game does this pretty much seamlessly. However the framerate does on occasion take a meat cleaver to the skull, especially towards the latter part of the game where some dramatic changes occur. It’s certainly not enough to spoil your enjoyment, though, and most of time things run tickety-boo.
The pacing in Layers of Fear is to be applauded and there is a perfect balance between exploration, story and scares. Your artist needs to complete his painting, and you need to complete the game because until that happens you’re caught in its unyielding grip. While it’s a short game, coming in at around 4-5 hours, the length is ideal. Any longer and players are likely to experience heart problems and permanent nervous ticks. This is a tense game. Just turning around sometimes takes great effort when you know there’s something behind you and a very real fear wants to freeze you in place.
Layers of Fear is a truly terrifying game. Play it in the dark with the lights off and a headset on and by morning you’ll have aged twenty years and gone completely grey. It’s a frightening journey into obsession and lunacy that you won’t forget for a good long while. A dark hit for the PS4.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10