Unless a madman locked you in a padded cell you are probably aware of the hype that surrounded the now legendary demo for Silent Hills known as P.T. Its eventual exile into development limbo was an unexpected blow to many within the gaming community. However, it would appear the Devil was finding work for idle hands over at indie developer Bloober Team. Something yet remained of P.T. within the inspiration ether. Dedicated they worked into the endless hours of the twilight dawn to bring it back in some form or other. Many full moons passed with endless prayers to the dark gods of gaming. Seemingly endless work until their fingers bled upon their keyboards to great rejoicing. For the flesh is weak but the game would be stronger for their sacrifice. Their vigil would bring the remnants back from the brink of oblivion and they would be rewarded. The twisted manifestation that clawed its way from their portal of creativity would be known by all as, Layers of Fear.
You start the game as an artist simply wishing to finish his latest painting. Of course, things aren’t quite so simple. You will soon discover there’s a twisted truth that writhes beneath the surface. As I took the advice of the game, that by rights I shouldn’t trust at all, I wore headphones. I’m going to highly recommend that you do the same for the full impact. Not to do so would be a crime as the audio is fantastically crafted and very much part of the gameplay mechanics. The direction and distance of noises has a high level of precision. At times you will need to follow evil whispers to discover items that give light to the extremely dark narrative. Other times it’s creaky doors opening or a loud bang and you will know exactly where it came from. Just the footsteps of your character’s hobbling echo as you traverse hallways. The laboured steps sound eerily similar to a steady heartbeat that speeds up when you move faster. Add to that there’s a thunderstorm raging on outside with a ghostly wind screaming as rain audibly hits upon the window panes. The scrabbling of rats under the floorboards, children’s crying and even beastly growling breathing down your neck in the pitch darkness. Everything is geared towards making you anxious and off kilter and it works like a charm.
Combine that with an excellent use of lighting and various visual distortions. Old video camera style filters and juxtaposition scenes with grim imagery play on the mind. The aesthetic is impressive throughout as the high fidelity validates the overall authenticity. Some models like the wine bottles and the Iron Cross medals are used repeatedly. Although in hindsight, this is a very abstract game and many of the seemingly mundane objects may have a deeper significance to them. After all, the artist is a raving drunk and the Nazi links to the occult are pretty well-known. The paintings that litter the corridors and rooms are some of my favourites, including the Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ and Francisco Goya’s ‘Black Paintings’ series. Even the more mundane looking artwork has some kind of link to the underlining story. I particularly liked when the paintings transform into something resembling Francis Bacon’s Pope Innocent X series. One minor nit pick I have is that there are mirrors and other reflective surfaces yet your character doesn’t have a reflection. I can see no thematic reason for this considering it’s self-evident whom you are playing as from the start, so it’s a massive shame. Especially when the overall experience relies so heavily on creating authentic environment in order to subvert it.
Interacting with the world is straightforward. The dot in the centre of the screen will highlight things you can interact with when you hover it over certain objects. You simply press the right trigger and move in the desired direction. As intuitive as this mechanic is you aren’t locked, even with the trigger firmly pressed, so I found my camera flying off to the side all too often. The majority of the time you will be opening draws and doors unless they’re locked. On occasion you will find scrap of documents and photos that reveal exactly what happened. With each chapter I went farther down this rabbit hole of delirium. The house is like a labyrinth that occasionally shifts when you turn your back. That’s when it’s not literally melting before your eyes like a Salvador Dali painting.
Always listen out for crying from the wailing banshee that lurks the corridors. Her twisted form shifting unnaturally is really disturbing, clearly influenced by the ghost in P.T. That’s no bad thing as the overall effect of disturbing your mind still works. If you happen to get too close there’s the expected jump scare that you’re never quite ready for. I’m no fan of jump scares and there are a fair few throughout. However, they have more variety than something just jumping up in your face quickly and the pacing is spot on. Even on my second play through this apparition put me on edge. Fortunately you can actually avoid her at all times if you can figure out how. There are small corridor sections you’d otherwise miss if she catches you but there’s no major impact overall.
Overall Layers of Fear is more disturbing than actually scary. There are many horror tropes used such as rats and dolls. Though, these are heavily dependent on personal fears. If you aren’t afraid of them then they wont bother you. I actually thought the rats were kind of cute, almost like friends in the darkness. The underlying narrative, without spoiling it too much, has a fair few clichés. However, just having clichés doesn’t necessarily make it bad. The way you discover the story is the by far the most compelling part of the game.
You should be able to complete within six hours, only it’s unlikely you will have fully completed it. The game requires you to play it at least twice and learn from the first time through to be truly successful. There will be plenty of things you missed and hidden scary moments you get by just looking a little further now you have more courage. I have to praise the Bloober team for their execution and real understanding of gamer psychology on a second play of a horror game. After that there’s no reason to play again outside of looking for collectables. It’s argued that video games are a medium of art, if that is the case then this is one of the masterpieces you need in your collection.
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