Just after Valentine’s Day, Polish developers Bloober Team released their latest game: Layers of Fear. Currently available on PC, Xbox One and PS4, the game is described as a psychedelic horror. That’s a pretty accurate description — the game is a whirling, colorful nightmare that’ll likely scare even the most seasoned horror fans. Even if you’ve experienced the nail-biting suburban terror of P.T. or the Gothic madness of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Layers of Fear still manages to find fresh and interesting ways to scare you. But how does it accomplish that?
How It Scares You
Travis Newton: Horror games often pull from the same shallow bag of tricks that horror movies use to scare us. Loud, startling noises and actions are probably the most common way to keep players on edge. If timed just right, these “jump scares” can be very effective, but they’re not the most innovative or clever ways to scare players. While Layers of Fear certainly has jump scares aplenty, the developers knew that players would find deeper, more meaningful horror in the game’s twisted visions.
Antique dolls are frequently seen in horror, and perhaps they’re a cliché, but Layers of Fear uses them to shocking effect. In one terrifyingly memorable sequence, the player’s perspective spins with a carousel-shaped wind-up toy while a pulsing mass of doll faces slowly approaches. Even as a seasoned veteran of horror, I found myself trying not to think of it when I turned the lights off to go to bed that night.
Andrew Hawkins: I think Layers uses a lot of the familiar horror tropes and cliches to their full effect in the game. We have come to expect jarring sound effects and jump scares from most games and movies that attempt this, but what the Bloober team did here was more than just a quick shock to the system. The scares in this are built on top of each other, especially when you feel like the room is spinning around you in a whirlwind of disturbing imagery. The style is very dark and menacing at times as well and I think the game’s narrative adds to it perfectly.
Travis Newton: Like all “walking simulator” games, Layers of Fear takes place in the first person. It puts you in the head of the game’s unnamed mad painter, and to heighten the effect the game employs a strong head bob. It’s a bit jarring at first, and can be turned off in the game’s options menu, but it really helps sell the physicality of a character you never actually see. There’s something else, too — the character has a limp, which matches up with the camera movement in the head bob. The uneven footsteps are always audible, on every surface. Every piece of debris crunches underfoot.
These methods of immersion are something you can’t use in a traditional “haunted house” attraction, in which you’re pushed through a short, frantic and assaultively loud series of rooms and hallways. All of this got me thinking — Layers of Fear would translate exceptionally well to Oculus Rift or similar VR platforms. The immersion would only deepen, making the game perhaps one of the most frightening experiences to ever hit VR. Unfortunately, Bloober Team hasn’t announced any plans to bring the game to the Oculus, but we really hope they do.
Andrew Hawkins: If they do, this will be a selling point for VR devices and consoles. The best way to play Layers of Fear right now is with the lights off and no distractions. The game draws you in, to the point that if you are distraction free, Layers becomes an immersive experience unlike most of its peers. There were very few times in the game where I felt disconnected and only once or twice did the dialogue seem overdone. It captures your full attention once you dive in.
Visual Effects and Design
Andrew Hawkins: What I found to be fascinating about the game was how the visuals are used to manipulate the player. The warping of levels and constant shifts in depth are sometimes so extreme that the effect is disorienting. There are times when the visuals are so distorted that it almost becomes nauseating and it really does add to the sense of unease. Vertigo plays a huge role late in the game, and if players are close to a smaller sized display, it heavily affects the senses. I think that when PlayStation VR launches, this should be a priority title.
Travis Newton: I had no idea what I was in for with this game. The opening, when you enter the house, had me thinking it would be a bit more Metroidvania-style, but the game is much more linear. When you walk through doors, they frequently shut behind you, never to re-open. The house is a maze of hallways rooms that exist outside of space and time, folding, stretching and changing when your back is turned. The trick never gets old, and just when you think the game has shown you all of its tricks, it pulls out something even more magical.
Sound Mixing and Music
Andrew Hawkins: When the game starts, there is a quick note saying headphones are recommended. I found that to be great advice. Playing this on a home audio system is fine if you have a surround sound setup, but nothing beats the in-your-ears experience this game offers. Layers of Fear seems like it was made to be a full sensory nightmare and the way the audio was mixed is meant to be shocking and jarring. The soundtrack sets the dark and brooding tone of the game perfectly, but that mix of horrific sound effects really gets unnerving when it sounds like it’s coming from everywhere.
Travis Newton: The game’s musical cues are just as well mixed as its sound effects. Polish composer Arkadiusz Reikowski is responsible for the game’s score, which I think could be one of the best of the year. The music is surprisingly heartfelt, evoking the tragedy of the central story. You’ll hear a lot of music box and piano, which represent the protagonist’s daughter and wife, respectively. And yeah, headphones are a must with this game. The direction of sound effects will actually help you play as you follow voices, ringing phones, and squeaking rats through the ever-changing house.
Comparing It to Similar Games
Andrew Hawkins: Layers of Fear has a lot of competition out there, and based on the current titles that occupy the interactive horror genre, this one stacks up to be one of the best and most effective. There’s a reason plenty of people have been comparing this to Kojima and Guillermo del Toro’s P.T. experiment. Layers is in the same vein as Outlast and Among the Sleep, but by focusing on the visual and audio effects more than the run and hide gameplay style of its peers, it rises to the top as one of the most memorable of the bunch. It doesn’t even need zombies.
Travis Newton: Layers of Fear stands out from the crowd as an unusually colorful and thoughtful horror game. While it’s certainly grotesque, it doesn’t share the contemporary feel or grisly shocks of Outlast or Alien: Isolation. Layers of Fear is also refreshingly light on gore, especially compared to games like the Tomb Raider reboot which was decorated with the sticky remains of hundreds of corpses.
Horror fans should also be on the lookout for nods to horror classics like The Changeling, Silent Hill 4: The Room, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft.