Special thanks to Wolfman for helping with edits.
When I first started my “Beat the Backlog” series, I had 152 unfinished video games in my possession. Progress has been made, reducing the still-shameful total by thirteen. As I wanted something artsy and short as a palate cleanser after the middling NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams, I was lead to Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear, a “Psychedelic Horror Game” starring a struggling artist.
Our protagonist is a nameless painter and the setting is his home, a large abode that initially appears stable. Layers of Fear employs a minimalistic approach in its storytelling. Some in-game collectables, however, delve into the painter’s history, exploring, amongst various pertinent topics, his psychological and familial issues and the fire that ruined his home. I should stress that the collectables’ accompanying writing and delivery is hit or miss, striking some pretty deep lows when it misses.
Layers of Fear is, at its core, a trippy walking simulator with puzzle elements, the latter of which may involve finding specific items or triggering a scripted event that will allow you to progress. While the first-person title prides itself on its facade of psychological horror, its attempts to terrorize fall flat. Within the first 20 minutes, you get the sensation the painter is not and will never be in any tangible danger. Said suspicions are confirmed while you wander through and inspect the mansion, realizing that little you’ll be presented with will impede your quest beyond slowing you down. A ghostly apparition of the painter’s wife appears periodically, channeling Lisa from P.T. but without the nuance. Whenever she strikes, you’re treated to unimaginative jump scares that allegedly teach the artist to “embrace death,” yet he always gets back up on his feet shortly thereafter. While Layers of Fear may not be trying to be, say, Resident Evil 4 or Corpse Party, it nevertheless lacks any substantial tension to serve as an impetus to players.
That’s not to say Layers of Fear’s atmosphere is weak, however; there was a delightfully creepy vibe to the building, and Bloober Team’s visual tricks kept me moving through all six chapters. The painter’s perspective flips between memories of his once well-maintained home and the dilapidated, inhospitable ruins he’s wandering through now, and his damaged psyche further impairs his search for his six painting supplies. The mansion was always contorting, from doors spawning as your back was turned to seeing objects and set pieces materialize on the fly. However, while these effects are Layers of Fear’s greatest asset, they double as another shortcoming; the experience would’ve benefited from more restraint in utilizing them. While the effects themselves are often unpredictable, you learn quickly to sense when they’re coming and how to respond to them. They also occur with such regularity that you’re never allotted any breathing room.
I only procured one of the three endings – evidently the trinkets you salvage and how you solve select issues determines your outcome – and I lack the motivation to try again for the others (nor will I invest in the Inheritance DLC campaign). I never found myself frightened in the purgatory Layers of Fear confronted me with and, unlike Outlast, I never grew to care for its narrative or the maladjusted personalities that were part of it. Regardless, I did derive some enjoyment from the four hours I spent haunting the halls through the insane painter’s eyes, and it certainly made for a memorable experience.