Layers of Fear – which was just fully released on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam after spending time in both Steam Early Access and the Xbox One Game Preview Program – delivers a nightmarish experience chock full of insanity. Developed by Poland’s Bloober Team and published by Aspyr Media, Layers of Fear sets out to frighten, haunt and generally unsettle those who enter its twisted corridors.
Right off the bat, Layers of Fear builds a strong setting and overall tone for the player. With the popularity of “walking simulators” soaring, especially in the horror genre, Layers of Fear needs to set itself apart with a high bar, and maintain it’s feeling throughout. The strength of the game lies in it’s visual style, as the player will be staring at the labyrinthine maze of passages for the entirety of their experience. Layers of Fear thrusts the player into the confusing mess of an artist’s twisted mind, forcing them to untangle the demented world the character has created. The inclusion of a variety of subtle, and not-so-subtle, changes in tone help reinforce this right from the start. The game does a great job of keeping the player confused about details just enough to keep them guessing. It’s this tension building that other games in the genre often fail at right from the start.
The problems with Layers of Fear begin as soon as the mechanics come fully into play. Perhaps some of the issues can be attributed to the fact that, although so much of this game is scripted, decisions made by the player (as to which paths are taken and how much exploration is done) end up resulting in different final outcomes. This is great for promoting more than one play through, but said flexibility ends up affecting the narrative as a whole.
A lot of the story is also left up to the player to discover, and collectibles are pretty well-hidden. If you try to find everything and experience as much as you possibly can, then you can expect a slow and meticulous play through that will involve searching through lots of drawers and cabinets, and exploring every inch of a constantly changing landscape. This tended to leave me feeling as though I was torn between two worlds while playing the game. The rational completionist in me was trying to uncover everything the game had to offer; while the horror junkie waiting for the next scare just wanted the tedium to end as quickly as possible. The resulting clash between tedium and enjoyability began to permeate the majority of my time with the game, and perhaps this is the intention of the design, to make the player feel the internal conflict of the character through the mechanics, or maybe I’m just reading too much into it all.
Overall, the mechanics of pixel-hunting and navigation do get quite dull if one focuses too much on them. Sadly, they do dampen the excellent atmosphere and tone of the experience. It’s unfortunate that the core mechanics Layers of Fear fail to thoroughly communicate the sense of insanity clearly felt by the character. At times it felt as though the game lost touch with what might be shocking and was going more for standard and trope-filled scares.
Setting aside functional issues with tedium for a second, one has to consider the actual world being created within the game. Thankfully, things are on point here, with an immersive atmosphere that includes rotting walls, decaying boards and self-destructing rooms that speak to the kind of crazy mind we’re dealing with. Although his words can show feelings of surprise and distress, his journals say otherwise, painting a frightening picture of what we’re dealing with. And, while the dialogue – especially the narration that occurs when items are discovered – can be a bit cheesy, both in terms of writing and delivery, it’s not a huge issue.
On the Xbox One, things can be hit and miss in terms of actual performance. Sometimes the frame rate will drop, or the movement will slow quite noticeably, but it’s not always easy to tell if it occurs due to a design decision or a technical problem. Things are also somewhat blurry, but that’s likely filters coming into play. Just don’t go in expecting a perfectly polished game, and know that the stuttered movement and first-person point of view may make some gamers nauseous. That’s a drawback of this genre, after all, and the main character does live with a prosthetic leg, meaning that he hobbles quite a bit.
As a value proposition, Layers of Fear is a hard sell for those who aren’t fans of the genre. The mild issues with mechanics and performance aside, the overall experience is pleasant for fans or those used to this type of game. The problem of wide audience appeal is something common in the horror game genre, so I cannot fault any game for that, including Layers of Fear.
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