This is an Early Access review.
When it came time to review Layers of Fear, it certainly didn’t help that I grew up in a creaky, old, timbered inn built around the turn of the 20
century. As it happens, that sort of upbringing leaves you rather predisposed to the specific type of terror that Layers of Fear attempts to tap into, and even the early-game setup and jump scares made me nope away more than once. Beyond that, though, the themes of great sorrow, tragedy, and creative madness that the game utilizes tend to reach most people—not just me—on a very deep level.
Atmosphere is something that Layers of Fear offers in spades. So much so, that I feel it demands a new idiom all its own. The game builds upon layers of f… hmmm. From the weather outside at game start, rain pelting the house, to the music, the absurdly intricate visual details, the manual interaction with objects, doors, drawers, switches, etc., right down to the creaks and groans of the house, it’s immediately evident when starting the game just how masterful Bloober Team SA are at manipulating fear. While it’s clear that the artist’s (from whose perspective the game is played) mental state is in question even from the outset, as is evidenced by his wobbly drunkenness while idle, the degree of madness to which he slips—or perhaps, has already slipped—is the true focus of the game.
Aristotle once wrote that there is no great genius without some touch of madness. As much of the game’s setup comes from newspaper clippings and letters—with names scratched out in anger (or perhaps, more accurately, sorrow) —alluding to the disfigurement of his beautiful wife in a tragic fire, it’s evident that the player character is a mix of both. Though, just how mad (and drunk) is a worrying thing to ponder while stumbling through the masterfully crafted and detailed old house filled with tragic reminders of a past life—and empty bottles; lots and lots of empty bottles. With feigned tense moments culminating in mundanity, cryptic messages scrawled on walls, horrifying use of piles of mannequins and creepy dolls strewn about, and a house and rooms that are ever-changing, Layers of Fear plays like a horrifying new take on the concept of The Stanley Parable, or Gone Home.
I wish I could find the words to describe just how well-crafted the house is. From the beautiful woodworking of the walls and ceilings, the incredible real-world portraits and paintings that are eerily realistic, to the supremely convincing layout and detailing of areas like the kitchen and study, down to the horrifying use of unnaturally vibrant greens, reds, and teals in the oil paint splattered about that marks the player’s descent into madness, the house is a truly unnerving place to even stand in, let alone explore. So much in this game slips into the uncanny valley as a result of its disturbing realism that, even when the walls aren’t melting, or the rooms undergoing unseen changes while you’re in them, it’s a terrifying place to be.
Sadly, the only times the immersion is broken is as a result of technical issues. While Layers of Fear is—admittedly—still marked as Early Access, small performance hiccups and sub-optimal anti-aliasing tend to cause occasional stutters in the framerate, as well as tragic jaggies on some of the game’s higher-contrast straight edges. So much of the game is detailed with actual modeling—rather than simple texture and bump-mapping—that I fear for the immersion factor on sub-prime computers. The trade-off, though, is that every scene, from every viewpoint and every perspective looks like a brilliantly rendered point-and-click slide, and I’m flabbergasted that we’ve reached a point where it’s possible to walk around a cinematic experience such as this in real-time.
Truly, Layers of Fear is a masterpiece to behold. Buy it. Play it. Buy it and have a friend play it while you watch if you’re faint-of-heart. Or for the full experience, play it in a dark room with surround-sound headphones on, but do something with it; anything. Layers of Fear is a horror experience the likes of which I’ve never before experienced, and to not experience it is doing a disservice to yourself, the game, and the people over at Bloober Team SA who created it. It’s terrifying on a primal level; a level that doesn’t make you fear for your life, but for your sanity. It preys upon this fear in a way that makes Session 9 seem like a light-hearted film. For me, it sets a new bar for immersion in psychological horror