The original Layers of Fear was a masterwork of atmosphere, taking the player through a chilling haunted house that refused to obey the rules of reality. Shifting and twisting as it saw fit, the whole world would change behind your turned back, often revealing some new, sinister development as your every step carried you to its frightening conclusion. Sadly, Layers of Fear 2 is but a shadow of its terrifying predecessor.
You play an actor who is on an ocean liner. A director wished to create a film on the ship, and it seems you’ll be obliging them, even when they seem to be a disembodied voice that sometimes gives you direction, sometimes whispers unsettling revelations and horrifying things. Of yeah, and the boat very quickly shifts into a place most discomforting, with reality breaking apart as it did in the previous game.
Layers of Fear 2 tries to use that same sense of shifting reality to make the player feel uneasy, but it doesn’t do as good of a job as the last game. The original was very good at making every path you took feel like the correct one, with the world shifting to carry you through to the next part of the story. In this game, you can take wrong turns. Head down side passageways that don’t lead anywhere (but offer collectibles and the like).
That doesn’t exactly sound bad, but this means the player can often get tangled up and lost. The way forward isn’t always complicated, but sometimes, it seemed like I wasn’t doing the right things to trigger the correct path to appear, or that those things were unnecessarily complicated to trigger. I would find myself stubbornly looping through areas, striving to figure out which note or object I needed to look at to allow me to move on, rather than smoothly moving ahead. This meant that pacing would often suffer, or that I’d be thinking about how to make the game progress rather than simply feeling my way through the narrative and the game’s frightening locales.
This problem was compounded by the game’s use of baffling puzzles. Periodically, you would have to figure out a combination lock, or find a code to a safe, or fiddle with shadows in a room. None of these seemed to challenge the mind, but were rather solved by playing around with items or looking around the environments. This often meant constant messing about with objects to see which solution worked (the shadow plant puzzle being the most offensive), or just meandering a space until you found a combination written somewhere. These puzzles added little to the engagement, and the sense of being busywork further broke the immersion needed for a good horror atmosphere to work its magic.
Layers of Fear 2 made up for some of this broken atmosphere through getting its chase sequences and monster encounters down well. Unlike past forays from the developer, the chases in this game are tense, terrifying things where you’re left quivering afterwards. The monstrous presence of the game is quite persistent, and often dogs the player through tight areas and challenging mazes. That it’s always right on your heels made for some chilling moments that left the heart pounding.
That said, these chases sometimes came with confusing rules or means of avoiding the monster. Or the monster would move so quickly that the slightest mix-up with how you played them would result in death. Not that dying can’t increase your feeling of fear in these moments, but dying repeatedly from an overly-challenging chase can break that immersion again. I found myself frustrated after multiple deaths as I tried to figure out some of the rules of these chases, or again, concentrating too hard on how to play the game rather than feeling like I was trying to avoid the monster.
Still, it was lovely to be lost throughout much of the game’s gorgeous corridors. The developers of Layers of Fear 2 excel at creating surreal, nightmarish places within the confines of the ocean liner. The normal halls quickly give way to twisted places lined with disturbing mannequins, or changes that take the player back to childlike memories and haunting visions. It’s beautiful in its horrors, even when you’re aggravated about being lost or unsure what to do.
The story you find within these halls was deliciously tangled. The game constantly teases its truths and meanings, demanding the player put in some thought to figure out what is all going on with your character. However, it does make a bit too much annoying use of hand-written notes, which can get a little ridiculous. People seem to like to write themselves little notes when they’re losing their minds, it seems.
For those who complete the game’s five-ish hours journey quickly, there are collectibles and alternate story paths they can take to give themselves more to pick at. Layers of Fear 2 also lets you choose which chapter you wish to start back on if you want to complete a certain scene or find a hidden item there, which was a nice touch.
All of these extras and collectibles, while pleasant if you want a longer experience, feel like they derailed the taut, precise horror that the developers had made in the previous Layers of Fear. There’s more items to find, but at the expense of having a single path that flows through the horrors without accidentally losing the player. There’s more choices, but these feel like they cause the meaning of the game to flail and meander. They make for fun play, but weaken the game’s ability to horrify.
Layers of Fear 2 is striking in its unsettling places, and heart-pounding in its moments of disturbing proximity with its monstrosities. However, it is a looser experience than its predecessor, losing the player with busywork puzzles and winding corridors. It’s still worth experiencing, but it is a shame that it is a step back.