Cast as a once renowned painter, Layers of Fear finds the protagonist suffering from severe creative block as he struggles through his path in creating a new masterpiece. Locked inside a mansion, the disturbed amputee lurches through corridors and rooms in search of inspiration, but finds alcoholism and a notes from his terrified family instead.
The game begins when you pull the cloth off your latest work with a simple instruction, “Finish it”, and what follows is dive in to a mad world of art and horror. Inspired by classical paintings, many of which are twisted and warped and adorn the walls of the mansion, the layers – or perhaps depths – of madness of the unnamed painter are gradually revealed as six essential items are recovered to complete the masterpiece. Suffice it to say that you’re not looking for a pack of Crayola and a sheet of A4; this is a horror game and your art requires a much darker palette.
The game includes every scary movie cliché you can imagine at some point or other. Every box is ticked, and you’ll encounter rocking chairs moving by themselves, creepy dolls, doors slamming behind you, ghostly apparitions, musical boxes, wheelchairs, balls bouncing down stairs, books flying off shelves and more. Whilst the tropes are out in force, the game’s master stroke is in how the mansion warps around you. Rooms can change in a blink of an eye, and turning around and walking back through a door you just entered through will often lead to complete different room.
It’s immensely impressive how the geometry of the levels change. For example, you could walk in to a square room with no doors whatsoever, turn around and discover the door has simply vanished, and whilst you are lookig behind you, the game replaces the previously blank walls with something terrifying, so you jump when you spin back. There are also P.T.-like sections where the same corridor will repeat time and again, or conversely where you’re presented with a long series of corridors that never repeat, despite the fact that you’ve turned right twenty times and have been walking round in circles.
Although you do spend most of your time limping from room to room, the game is never dull and constantly brings fresh, disturbing, sights. There’s always this shifting scenery around you, which means you’re never quite sure what to expect, whether it’s replacing the paintings and furniture in a room with childish scribbles or deforming the room’s contents as though everything were melting.
Whilst there is the odd ghost to be found and an awful lot of things banging on doors and prowling outside windows, the real monster of game is you. As you fall deeper into madness you can uncover the truth about your character and his deeds, none of which are pleasant. That said, even the most horrific of paintings can contain wonder and the same can be said for Layers of Fear, amidst the screaming dolls and warping corridors there moments of calm beauty.
A piano will play a gentle tune somewhere in the mansion, or perhaps gravity fails, causing hundreds of chequerboard pieces to float in to the air, allowing you to gently push them around like a sparkling zero G waterfall. It will only last a few seconds before the ceiling fan spins off and whizzes past like a giant throwing star, but at least there are a few moments of serene beauty amidst the horror of discovering what a twisted and depraved character you are playing.
There are secrets to discover and a rich back story, but the game is essentially one long haunted house ride, an extended version of the dream sequences found in 80s horror movies. Personally I have no problems with this type of game and it also makes a great passive viewing experience. A friend watched me play through all five hours or so, and with the lights off and the surround sound on he agreed it was just like watching a scary movie.
Layers of Fear sits somewhere between the pejoratively classified ‘walking simulators’ and a full game experience, as for the most part you are simply wandering around and solving the odd puzzle. Despite the clichés and obvious jump scares, I rather enjoyed my time exploring the mansion and I’m looking forward to having another play through to see what I missed the first time round. If you enjoyed the Silent Hills teaser P.T. and want more of the same, then Layers of Fear is well worth a look.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4