A stormy evening, a broad hallway, jagged textures and stuttering frame rate – is this Gone Home all over again? That was my first impression as I launched Layers of Fear and expected to spend the next few hours on some gloomy, slow-paced, go-from-A-to-B exploration while getting to know the game’s slightly disturbing yet predictable story. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The Early Access contents of this horror game from a Polish indie developer proved itself to be ridiculously climatic and full of well-executed tricks that are iconic to the horror genre, while adding some balanced interactivity and various narrative devices to the mix. To make you truly understand just how promising a title we’re dealing with here, we’ll have to go back to that hallway and look at things through the eyes of an artist.
All the pictures on the walls…
From the very beginning, the paintings are watching me. Be it the hall, the kitchen or the stairs – every wall and every corner is full of unusual paintings. I meander through an elegant Victorian mansion – the artist’s - my – home. The dim darkness of the room is broken only by lightning illuminating the sky, I light some candles, turn on the light. Then, out of curiosity, I pull out the drawers in the cabinets, turn the taps in the bathroom and open the cupboards in the pantry. The interactions remind me of Amnesia, combined with some elements of a point-n-click adventure game, but soon, I realize that clicking is not the point – from the very first minute, every action you contribute helps in building the dense atmosphere surrounding the interior of the mansion and becomes an unspoken part of the story. I stumble on some mousetraps, see an empty wine bottle in the closet, hear the music being played by a phonograph, observe the eyes from the paintings follow my every move – the beginning of the game is an introduction to the mood – the anxiety - more than to the plot. This introduction is so ingenious that when the first small jump scare eventually appeared, my only thought was “Here we go…”.
No worries though, Layers of Fear doesn’t resort to such cheap tricks too often. That’s no D-class movie. On the contrary, the jump scares are surprisingly rare – what’s used to build the atmosphere is the player’s own imagination. The protagonist I’m controlling is a painter, currently working on his lifetime masterpiece. Consequently, my first task is to find a way to access the padlocked atelier. I know where to find the key – according to the sheet of paper I saw hanging on the door, it’s in the desk in the first floor study. And so I walk, barely noticing that some of the paintings on the walls are missing. That glimpse of a human figure I saw behind the window must have been my imagination. The ball falling down the stairs must have been moved by the wind. As I read every note, every leaflet and newspaper clipping I can find, in search of an explanation for all the supernatural phenomena, I quickly begin to understand that there are some things I won’t find there. Some pieces of this puzzle will have to be placed in my head and it won’t happen soon. But where to look for them? 15 minutes after I began my adventure, I’ve had every room in the mansion visited as I enter the atelier. I unveil the unfinished painting – nothing happens. No screams, no bloodthirsty monsters to chase me. I check every chest, ransack the drawers; I find nothing significant. Finally, I leave the atelier disappointed and that’s when I notice… My visit in that mansion is already over. From now on I shall be walking the corridors of the mind.
Portrait of a painter
What awaits me behind the door is a corridor. One I’ve never seen before. This trick – employed previously by Antichamber (among others) at gameplay level and resembling the artistic vision featured in the movie 1408, based on Stephen King’s short story under the same title – combined with the dense aura of anxiety and fear, does the job. Now I truly have the feeling of having stepped into a horror. And it won’t go away, not even for a second, because the creators pull out all the stops to subject me to a terrifying, memorable and very diverse experience.
The diversity of scares offered by Layers of Fear is suggested even by its title – I would do you an unforgivable disservice if I were to describe them all in detail. Let the game unveil them before your own eyes, trust me. All I can tell you is that I was impressed with Bloober Team’s creativity, or should I say, with how they perfectly combined visual transitions, well-matched music and the tension originating from random interactions. One time, when you hit a piano key, you will see nothing more than a pleasant visual effect. Some other time, turning around will activate a sophisticated script that may give you a heart attack. By all means, there are some clichés among them as well (like a child laughing in your headphones or some obvious jump scares), but, when compared to the abundance of more refined tricks and measure, their negative impact on the overall experience is marginal. Most of them have a “rational” explanation – every scene you see means something to the protagonist, tells you something about him and his personality and, in the end, is somehow connected, directly or indirectly, to the story – if that’s not a well polished narrative, I don’t know what is.
As an observer and, at the same time, a participant in the protagonists growing madness, I wade through subsequent layers of his distorted consciousness, discovering new facts concerning the artist’s past hidden in notes, flashbacks, writings on the walls and items. It’s the items that push our limping protagonist forward – collecting all of them will not only reveal the whole story but it will also allow him to finish his opus magnum. However, simply walking and collecting stuff would be mundane. That’s why the creators decided to slow our progress with more than traumatic experiences – sometimes we have to solve some easy but very climatic riddles. This addition is very welcome, because it further enhances the game’s overall variety and I’d like to see them in the finished version, even more so, if they would become a bit more challenging. Although, after some time, I end up revisiting some of the locations (Layers of Fear is basically a linear game), I don’t feel bored – in one part thanks to the gameplay variety, and in the other because the levels are designed to lead me through a maze of convoluted, constantly shifting corridors. The rooms themselves also feature different paranormal events and details. The whole world transforms to match the protagonists psyche, and the more I know about his story, the more I see things that lose or gain a meaning.
The game’s random elements sometimes break away from genre conventions – on more than one occasion, situations, which in a typical horror would be illustrated with a cutscene (like meeting a doll playing the piano), can be approached and sometimes I’m being thrown into them against my will (and in spite of my hope for a moment of respite). The individual sections of this mental dwelling shift between giving me complete freedom in choosing my path and “suggesting” (with sound effects, for example) an alternate route. Whatever my decision was, the results were surprising. For me, personally, the biggest surprise came with the unexpected appearance of closing credits, thanking me for testing the Layers of Fear Early Access – at that moment, I was hit by a sudden realization: this is still in development. What this game offers, while being an Early Access version: the terrifying visions depicted with a multitude of artistic expressions together with rich narrative, brilliantly presented, nearly tangible, impression of psychic instability and technical refinement – there’s more than enough for this game from Bloober Team to gain some serious publicity.
The Final Touch
To create something more than „just another Amnesia clone” is not an easy task, but I’m happy to say that the Bloober Team may actually pull it off. Technically speaking, Layers of Fear seems to be a complete product – some occasional flaws are unobtrusive and the problems, stemming from the lacking optimization and fickleness of the otherwise visually stunning Unity Engine, can yet be rectified. The full version is expected to offer roughly 6 hours of gameplay, and I think that, after reaching the closing credits, a good portion of horror fans (those who like their horrors suspenseful, unpredictable, and climatic more than anything) can come to a conclusion that they’ve just played one of the best games this year. Layers of Fear can get only better, and I’m already thrilled to have my blood frozen in my veins by this game.