Gamers have been gifted with some of the most masterful horror experiences in the history of gaming early on in this generation of consoles. From full-fledged horror games like Outlast, to the critically acclaimed “demo” that was P.T. (which we wish was a full retail experience), horror games are more effective now than they have ever been before. As developers continue to find new ways to haunt our dreams with ghastly visuals and unsettling audio design, I get more and more excited about not only how much this genre has evolved in recent times, but where it’s going in the near future. Layers of Fear is a title that has all the hallmarks of being the next exceptional horror experience, but it’s ultimately held back by performance issues that pull you out of an otherwise top-notch production.
Title: Layers of Fear
Release Date: February 16th, 2016
Developer: Bloober Team
Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed) / Xbox One / PC
Layers of Fear is a first-person horror game akin to the likes of the aforementioned P.T. and Outlast, but with a unique concept that has you constantly feeling uneasy and vulnerable. You are placed in the shoes of a fledgling artist who was once adored by critics, but appears to have lost that magic touch with the brush in more recent times. You arrive at home on a stormy night to an empty home. At first glance, everything appears to be normal, but as you make your way through the main foyer, you discover notes and news clippings that give you a little insight into your character, his reputation as an artist, and his expecting wife. As you play through the six-chapter story of Layers of Fear, you learn that all is not well with our talented artist, and that he’s living with a great deal of guilt while constantly fighting his inner demons. In order to fully appreciate the character development, it would behoove you to explore every cupboard, drawer, and closet in the house, as there are written letters that tell a tale of obsession, addiction, and insanity. It’s a dark, twisted look into one man’s soul and how he uses art to cope with his own imperfections while trying to create his magnum opus. In most first-person games, I try to find a way to connect with the character I’m playing as so that I can get a grip on what they’re going through, but in this instance, I grew to dislike my character more and more as the story moved along. This isn’t a negative though; I actually applaud developer Bloober Team for this type of character setup.
As haunting as the narrative can be at times, the sound design showcased in Layers of Fear is what really takes the atmosphere of the game to a whole new level. The music is subtle but builds tension all the same and, if you’re connected to a surround sound system or using headphones, the audio work will have you constantly turning and dreading what may (or may not) be around the corner. This brings me to the most interesting mechanic found in Layers of Fear: the shape-shifting of the house itself. Imagine walking down a hallway full of eerie portraits (some of them downright disturbing) before making your way into a library, only to turn around, leave out the same door, and it’s a completely different room than what you entered from previously. Bloober Team has confirmed that as you make your way through the house, there are over a hundred different room variants that can appear. Each room may or may not contain collectibles that help tell the story of our flawed protagonist (or is it antagonist?). And let’s not forget the scares, because there are plenty to be had during the game’s five-hour campaign. There is no shortage of jump-scares throughout Layers of Fear, but the one thing I dig about how they are setup here is how they don’t feel cheap. Ok, some of them are cheap, but more often than not these scares are well-placed. The reason I say that most aren’t cheap is because of how the house is constantly changing on you. There may be scares you miss completely because you didn’t react to an audio cue or investigate a low-lit corner of a room. As the rooms change, so do the opportunities for being scared silly. It creates an unnerving feeling because you really have no idea what to expect. Layers of Fear instills a sense of dread better than most horror games, and I loved that about it.
There is so much to like about Layers of Fear, but if there is one thing that can destroy an immersive horror experience, it’s technical issues. Layers of Fear is plagued with them. It’s obvious that the shifting rooms in Layers of Fear are taxing, technologically speaking, because there is noticeable stuttering when the room you are about to enter is loading up. It didn’t happen every time, but it was happening enough to where I would stop being concerned with what horrors may lie ahead, and would instead start worrying about whether or not the game was about to freeze up. If it wasn’t the loading hitch that was pulling me out of the experience, it was the highly inconsistent framerate. There were a few areas early on where I saw an ugly dip in the frames, but it’s during the sixth and final chapter where the game is almost unplayable. The poor framerate becomes a total experience killer here, especially since it happens during the narrative climax. When you play games like Layers of Fear, and you’re playing in a dark room with your headphones on, it’s just you and the game. Sadly, if you’re constantly breaking that immersion with technical bugs, it ruins the experience greatly. I will never claim to know anything about game development, so I’m not sure what Bloober Team can do to remedy these issues, but hopefully they can be addressed in a future update.
I admire the unique room-shifting mechanic implemented in Layers of Fear by Bloober Team; it complements the twisted narrative nicely. I just wish they were able to optimize the game better on PlayStation 4. In order for a horror game to be highly effective, the player must be fully immersed in the experience at all times. While it does deliver some genuine scares throughout the course of its relatively short story, it’s the highly inconsistent framerate and loading stutters that hamper what could’ve been an awesome horror experience.
Layers of Fear was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 code graciously provided by our friends at Evolve PR
- Genuine tension and scares
- Haunting imagery
- Dark, twisted story
- Severe framerate issues
- Loading stutters