Art was at the heart of the horrors of the first Layers of Fear, as you journeyed into the dark recesses of a painter’s mind and his struggles with alcoholism. In a similar way, Layers of Fear 2 uses cinema to explore the psyche of an actor searching for a character. It might be about a childhood trauma, an abusive father, a split personality, or an evil director, but unfortunately the voice overs and imagery are so obtuse and pretentious, it’s almost impossible to work out exactly what is going on.
The game is superficially set on an ocean liner where the unnamed actor is about to start filming, with Candyman star Tony Todd playing an unseen and malevolent director, berating and belittling the star. That lasts all of two minutes before every rule is thrown out of a porthole and we descend into madness, opening doors to find forests, mazes, and things scuttling around in your peripheral vision. Like the first game you don’t have to do much other than make your way to the next area and as there’s only one path for you to follow, this allows developers Bloober to script in jump scares and set pieces.
There are a couple of puzzles, most of which are quite easy, and some very annoying instant death sequences in which you get chased by a wobbling, distorted figure until you reach a safe area, but they’re not the focus of the game. As you progress you can pick up recordings and read notes to help flesh out the story, but the bulk of the narrative is told by a young brother and sister, and Tony Todd occasionally breaking in with some Jigsaw-esque taunts. Each level begins with a short film to watch, most of which feature a deer wandering about, distortion effects, and some of the most obscure narration you will ever hear.
The game is split in to five acts, the first of which was one of the most arduous slogs I have ever encountered in a video game. Not because it was difficult – you are just walking from room after all – but because there is no introduction, no back story. You are on the ‘ship’ and then weird stuff starts happening. You get a vague idea of the story by the second act, but even then a lot of the game is trying too hard to be mysterious. Maybe I’m just too stupid to understand what the developers were trying to convey, but as I managed to enjoy their previous game which involved fine art, something I know nothing of, I hope that is not the case.
There’s some excellent set pieces as you get deeper into the game, with the third act being a real standout with its odd, childlike imagery that draws you into the past to learn about the actor’s past. Like the first game, the developers play with your senses, doors vanish behind you, walls move when you are not looking, and corridors appear from nowhere. Unfortunately, they’re tricks that you’ll be familiar from Layers of Fear, and you quickly learn that if you have reached a dead end, it’s because the room has shifted behind you to reveal a new path. There are some new tricks that Bloober play, and actually it was the simplest of twists that I found to be the most effective.
To get the most out the game you are going to really need to know your films, and we’re not talking about Back to the Future or the latest Marvel blockbuster. One sequence is based on the 1902 French adventure film ‘Le Voyage dans la Lune’, there are hints of 1922 German expressionist horror film ‘Nosferatu’, and Fritz Lang’s classic ‘Metropolis’ from 1927 also features heavily. There are also references to Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, and one or two nods to more modern films such as Se7en, Alien, The Ring, and Amityville.
If you not aware of these films and don’t fancy putting erotic horror B-movie Dr. Caligari on your watch list, then don’t even bother with Layers of Fear 2. Video games are art and, ironically given the subject of the first game, this is the most arty of art games I have ever encountered. Journey, What Remains of Edit Finch, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture are Hollywood blockbusters compared to the obscurity of Layers of Fear 2. If this was a film it would showing just once, at 3AM on a Sunday morning, at a small independent cinema.
And it would be in German.
Most things in Layers of Fear 2 are up for interpretation. Is it referencing this or that? Does it mean joy, pain, or anger? It’s the video game equivalent of Tracey Emin’s contemporary work ‘My Bed’; what you read into it is up to you. For example, one puzzle in the game has you manipulating various devices so shadows depict a tentacle growing from a plant pot. What on earth does that mean? I have no idea and Candyman whispering “How many times must a man die before he can truly live?” in the background doesn’t help me understand. I have seen all three endings of the game, two of which directly contradict each other leaving me even more confused.
What I can tell you is that the game isn’t scary, apart from the odd shock taken from the rather tiresome quiet-quiet-BANG school of cinema. It’s evocative, spooky, creepy, but not terrifying in any way. It does have a great sound design with ominous staccato chords, thumps, and growls, many of of which are teamed with rumble of the controller for added effect, but that doesn’t make it much scarier.