Had I reviewed Layers of Fear before this weekend, it would’ve had a slightly different tone. That’s because I was loving it. I was playing a chapter a night, and looking forward to doing so all day. But then the game ended, and I didn’t like the ending, so now I’m treating it with a little less reverence. That doesn’t mean you should play it, however. If you enjoy a good scare, you should absolutely play it.
This is because Layers of Fear is—as earlier reviews have stated without hyperbole—one of the best horror games ever made. Its sole intent is to mess with your mind, not chase you down hallways or through the woods. You can’t die in Layers of Fear, or at least I don’t think so; what looks like dying in this game appears to just be fainting. It’s also greatly effective because the developers understand that it’s not what jumps out at you as you walk down long, darkened hallways that makes effective horror, it’s expecting something to jump out at you as you walk down long, darkened hallways.
And more long, darkened hallways.
And still more long, darkened hallways.
And even some that aren’t so dark.
And some that are really going to piss off your mom.
And some that…actually, I’m not entirely sure this counts as a hallway.
The basic premise of Layers of Fear is that you’re a painter working on your masterpiece that you just haven’t been able to complete. The reason why pretty much becomes the plot, and it’s revealed through some object-triggered monologs and a long series of notes you’ll find scattered about the house…a house you never leave, by the way. There’s a souring marriage, there’s alcohol, there’s an incorrect pet, there’s a horrible accident, and there’s a child. Why is all this told through notes? Because it’s set in the Victorian era (the furniture points towards fireplaces and checker boards, not TVs…)
…when people had to communicate with one other via hand written letters, not text messages. In an isolated bit of observational comedy, the woman complains that they live under the same roof and shouldn’t have to communicate with notes.
As you’ll discover, though, that was the least of her worries, and the least of yours. As you move through the game, the house you’re exploring becomes more metaphorically decrepit. Rats are everywhere (or are they). The few “normal” paintings shift into hideous creations. Apparitions move through the dark. Rooms and hallways shift each time you turn around. Baby dolls that shake violently. And drawers to open. Oh, those drawers. I don’t know how anyone living in Victorian times got any work done with all those drawers and cabinets they had to open.
All of this happens as you grow closer to completing the painting you know you have to finish. The way you do so is disturbing and grotesque (but not in a gory way). Layers of Fear is divided into chapters, each ending with you getting new material to complete the painting. Some chapters are scarier than others, some are more imaginative, but all of them kept me on edge as the house more or less guided me to the destination. There are numerous times where you have to decide which way to go. Your choices can affect the ending by closing you off from certain items that can be found, but none force you to backtrack or completely block you from progressing. Doors will lock behind you if you’re going the right way…well, until you turn around and the door is gone completely, and then you turn around again and that door is gone, and then you turn around and there are now four doors, and then you open one and oh my God it’s a giant face! The house is never the same in any chapter, although various familiar elements will continue to come into play throughout the game, their significance changing as the story is revealed.
When you finally locate the next element for your macabre masterpiece, you’ll end up back in your workshop. Only then can the game be saved, so you can’t abandon Layers of Fear mid-chapter. This annoyed when I first realized it, but I quickly grew to like it. It made the situation feel more urgent, and I was happy to break up the chapters into evening gaming sessions, like reading a good horror novel. I played each chapter at night, alone in my office, with the lights out. Perfect setting. The most effective night was when the rest of the family was in bed and the spring wind outside my house was howling as loudly as that in the game. Between that and our cat causing all sorts of sounds I couldn’t immediately account for, it was pretty much perfection submersion into a tale of terror.
But then the game ended, and I was like, “What? That better be the bad ending.” So, I looked online. There are three possible endings, from what I could find, and it seems I got the neutral one. The two other endings are more definitive, but none of them bring a whole lot to a close, from what I watched. What I thought were key plot elements are not explained, and if I’m correct about from where the painter is getting his materials, it makes no sense, logically speaking. My theory while playing was much better, but proven wrong in one of the endings.
So, you’ll have to play the game multiple times to get all the endings, but Layer of Fear relies on fear and tension to draw you in. When you know what’s about to happen because you’ve already done it, that fear and tension is gone, making the game much, much less effective on subsequent play-throughs. In that regard, you’ll pretty much just have to be happy with the ending you get. You brought it on yourself, after all.
Again, though, Layers of Fear is an astoundingly effective psychological horror experience right up to the point when you click on your painting that one final time, and the $20 asking price more than makes up for my issues with the conclusion. I jumped quite a bit while playing it. I got goosebumps. I walked down hallways and opened doors with the nervous glee of a high school kid trying to impress his girlfriend at the local haunted laboratory at Halloween. Only the girl wasn’t there this time. She’s become a nightmare. And I’m losing my mind.
Genre: First-person horror
Developer: Bloober Team
Minimum Requirements: OS X v10.10, 2.3GHz Intel core i5 processor, 4 GB RAM, 1 GB graphics card, 5 GB available hard drive space
Availability: Now at Steam, GOG, and the Mac App Store