Layers of Fear is an indie effort, that looks and feels more polished than a lot of the psychological horror games out there. Do not mistake this for a title like Outlast that relies on action and jump scares, but instead steadily builds the tension throughout the narrative.
That is not to say that there are no jump scares to be had. There are, but they work because they are placed within the context of a slowly burning narrative that plays out over a few hours, challenging your perceptions of what is real and unreal. Enter a room only to find that the previously unlocked door is now suddenly locked - though you are the only one there. Turn your back on something, and you might just find it in a different location upon glancing at it again.
These sort of slowly paced, unsettling techniques are at the core of what Layers of Fear has to offer. The game is incredibly atmospheric, relying heavily on manipulating the environment - and your perception of the environment and combining it with a chilling, satisfying soundtrack and sound effects. Sadly the voiced narration leaves a little to be desired, but it is the only real weakness in the audio presentation.
While the sound design is impressive, the visuals were a little more of a mixed bag. Not because the graphics were not impressive. The room design, right down to rotting walls and the way our character's prosthetic leg gives him and his view a notable hobble. While these are nice touches and the art direction is sound, on a technical level things can get a little rough around the edges at times when the graphics stutter and slow down, generally because the system is trying to do too many things at once. A little more optimization would have gone a long ways to making sure that the sense of immersion did not get disrupted, but it is far from a deal killer.
Our protagonist is a man who feels his life is falling apart all around him. His life, his world - it is broken, and coming out of this, you might well think the same thing of his mind. Not unlike other horror games out there, the story comes to you in small pieces. A clue here, a visual tease there. I have long stated that scripted horror is the best in terms of creating atmosphere. I have played procedurally generated horror games in the past, and they help to support the shock value of jump scares, because there is no way to know what is coming. It is a type of horror, and effective, but not as memorable or as interesting as a well-conceived and executed storyline.
The attack on our protagonist's sanity resonated with me in similar fashion to the old Eternal Darkness game on the GameCube. When a painting starts to melt before your eyes - or does it - it can really start to make you question the character's sanity. Just how much of this horrific world is real and how much resides in his mind? This struggle makes for a fascinating narrative if you are interested in these kinds of stories.
The downside to heavily scripted horror games, is that there is usually minimal incentive to play the game through a second time, let alone a third or fourth. This can make the value proposition for a good horror game questionable then, especially when it is an indie title that maybe only takes two or three hours to complete. Layers of Fear does a nice job of offering small, subtle branches along the way that can lead to one of several different endings. Some are similar to one another, but it is a nice bit of incentive to get you to pick up the controller and give it another go.
Layers of Fear does a nice job of crafting a quality, creepy atmosphere that could run a little longer, but gives you a reason to replay the game as well. The team has a good grasp on how to build suspense and the right times to trigger a jump scare. Layers of Fear would have benefited from a little more optimization here and there, but overall it is a worthwhile horror title.
Article by Nick