– Karly Taylor
A bit of a cliche title, I know, but bear with me here. Layers of Fear is a brand spanking new horror game on Steam, inspired by famous paintings, architecture and decor of centuries been and gone. It’s described as being a “psychadelic horror” that puts you in the shoes of an artist who, in his quest to finish his life’s greatest masterpiece, goes completely batshit insane. It’s only early access at the moment, but has so far received overwhelmingly positive reviews from other steam users. On the store page, it boasts a thick, heavy atmosphere, being able to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the duration of the game, while discovering the secrets of the protagonist’s madness as you delve into a house that’s constantly shifting and changing around you, making for a truly singular, idiosyncratic experience.
I’m apprehensive when it comes to new first person horror games these days. I can’t help it. It’s a popular formula that’s been beaten to death after the success of Amnesia: the Dark Descent and that Slenderman game that nobody cares about anymore. Personally, the novelty of those mechanics – the walking around, picking plot related items up, having things jump out at you sporadically – wore off pretty quickly. With the sole exception of Outlast, which was probably the best survival horror game I’ve played in a really long time, but Red Barrels went out of their way to make Outlast feel distinct from the other games that shared it’s genre.
Literally almost every new game under the “Survival Horror” tag on Steam ends up being one of these tired walking simulators. Needless to say, my pessimism when reading up about Layers of Fear flared up, and although I was suspicious of the “overwhelmingly positive” reviews and feedback this game received, I decided to buy it and give it a shot, expecting to be disappointed.
Layers of Fear, to put it simply, is the vivid and compelling love child of Amnesia and Gone Home, with a little bit of P.T. mixed in that came out of nowhere and surprised a lot of us. Believe me, it’s an experience that stays with you long after you finish playing. As a general principle, I’m not a fan of jump scares – they’re cheap ways to elicit a reaction from players. To me, being startled is not the same thing as being horrified. What makes Layers of Fear unique, however, is how well it manages to combine the two. The game is full of jump scares, but it doesn’t detract from the experience. It is also probably the cheapest and most effective laxative you’ll find on the market as a result.
Within the first twenty or thirty minutes of playing, you don’t get much information about what’s going on; you’re some dude in a ridiculously nicely furnished house. He’s also big on renaissance art. Cool. As is the standard for this genre, though, exploring and picking up items, specifically letters and newspaper clippings, begin to unveil the story slowly. I was amazed at how subtley the atmosphere deteriorates over time, the more you wander and uncover what happened to make the protagonist lose his mind.
He strives to create a masterpiece, something that he will be remembered for, but there’s far more to this moody and tense gem than meets the eye. A grim, empty nursery. Shattered glass bottles littering the house. Distorted paintings sneering at you from their places on the wall. A woman’s broken sobs echoing throughout the hallways. The house is constantly shifting and changing around you, providing – as promised – a dark psychadelic experience.
Enhanced by the creepy music, lighting and sound effects, and coupled with a well-crafted narrative, it makes Layers of Fear a must-play for horror fans. The game runs well even on the lowest setting, and I thought the click and drag feature to open drawers or chests was a nice touch. There’s no combat system, no ghoulish monsters you have to defeat; it’s a purely psychological experience, and a good one at that. It’s not for everybody, but these games seldom ever are. Having said that, there’s a huge market for the horror-themed walking simulator though, and I have no doubt that Layers of Fear will pick up in popularity after the full game has been released.
Sadly, it also serves as a melancholy reminder to this particular Silent Hill fan how great P.T. could’ve been, and while I feel P.T. would’ve been to horror what Skyrim was to RPGs, developers should also be cautious of falling into that honey pot and try to break away from the P.T. comparisons and similarities. Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but in future updates, the developers of Layers of Fear – and future horror games in general – should strive for a little more originality in their formulas.