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Friday, June 14, 2024

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Review: Layers of Fear (Steam)

I had a “writer’s block” much like Layers of Fear’s protagonist had creative issues, to put it mildly. In my case, it might have been just four days since my last review, but I have to admit that this game got me thinking. It really wasn’t easy to gather my thoughts relating to it and perhaps that is a large part of its appeal to me. It defies conventional description. Of course I’ve read several articles on this title so I knew at least partially that it won’t be yet another generic indie horror, that I’ll be done with in a couple of hours and then spend even less on writing about it. What’s truly fascinating is how developer Bloober Team SA went from arcades/platformers to something as unique and equally puzzling as Layers of Fear.

If it’s in the title, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to deduce that fear plays a central role in this game. While it’s psychological horror through and through, the main themes are seemingly benign symptoms which shall ultimately have deadly consequences. Once again, we have depression and anger, though they stem from unfulfillment and unrealistic expectations. Vanity finds its way into the equation and it’s certainly not a coincidence that the only in-game book whose cover is both visible and standing out, happens to be “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde. Just as I shall refrain from spoiling the game’s storyline, I won’t summarize the philosophical novel mentioned above. I strongly suggest you read it. Suffice to say, Layers of Fear is also about increasingly surreal paintings and situations while both the book and the game, feature paths of no return.

Divided into six chapters (referred to as “steps”), Layers of Fear has three distinct endings which won’t be as easy to unlock as revisiting a previous save file or even replaying a single level. You’ll have to rinse and repeat from the start. It guarantees replayability, I won’t deny that, yet unless you are careful about your in-game actions, you’ll probably miss the chance to experience all three. Wikipedia refers to them as “neutral”, “bad” and “good”. If you want my opinion, know that I don’t acknowledge the existence of happy endings in the horror genre. Happiness would defeat its very purpose. That’s not to say that the “neutral” conclusion I witnessed on my first (and so far only) playthrough, was disappointing. Ironically, the “good” ending is reserved to speedrunners, or those which don’t bother snooping around too much.

It’s not my playstyle though. I stopped a lot during the many, bizarrely repetitive rooms of the painter’s house. I rummaged through as many chests, cabinets, cupboards and drawers as I could. All in search of some meaning and given the circumstances, why not solace? If the unnamed “hero” of this game has his own set of obsessions, Layers of Fear awarded me with an OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) Achievement for constantly searching my in-game surroundings. Another fascinating “cheevo” is reserved to those true admirers of art which shall stare/observe paintings for an accumulated hour. That’s what I call dedication!

Plenty to see and do in Layers of Fear. Even more so to reflect upon. The story is simply superb. It avoids as many plot holes and clichés as it can while encouraging players to discover more, to finally get to the bottom of the painter’s plights, no matter how dark or deep the chasm might be. The fall cannot be averted and you realize that as soon as you start working on the magnum opus (masterpiece). The easel and its unfinished canvas serve as so many metaphors that it’s both hard to explain and I do not wish to reveal more than my readers want to know. Playing and finishing the game once, provides only half the answers anyways. Layers of Fear’s DLC (Inheritance) also has three endings of its own, so Bloober really doesn’t jest about their commitment to strong narrative-driven fiction.

A technical masterpiece achieved with the help of the Unity Engine. It may seem like a pun, since Layers of Fear focuses of masterpieces, twisted or not. It is truly the best looking Unity game I’ve seen on Steam or otherwise. I wasn’t even aware of Unity before joining the platform, but in the past two years I have played without exaggeration, a few hundred games which were powered by this highly versatile graphics engine. None can match the attention to detail, the visual effects and stability which I found within Layers of Fear.

It’s true that when running it maxed out + 4K resolution, the frame rate would drop to 45 on some occasions. Considering my personal emphasis on screenshots of the highest quality, I wouldn’t have run this title on 2K, simply for those constant 60fps. I can live with 45 and the end result was worth it: 90 screenshots so far and many more to come, once I dig into the DLC and future playthroughs of it and the base game itself.

The sound selection within Layers of Fear is spot on and at the same time, a rare example of a video game that is flawless from an audio-visual perspective. Sound effects, soundtrack, voice acting, you name it and this title features it admirably. I don’t use my headphones nearly as often as I should, but Layers of Fear proved to me that noise cancellation matters. You don’t want to miss out even on the whispers within this game.

Obviously connected to the story itself, Layers of Fear has the right kind of linear gameplay. Its level design demands and enforces this. Even the progress is saved in a captivating manner, one abstract room at a time. In other words, if you quit the game altogether or simply go back to the Main Menu and then you resume play, you initially find yourself back near the latest unfinished state of the canvas, only to “teleport” back towards the room you left. It perfectly mimics the confusion felt by navigating a labyrinth and that feeling shall not depart from players at any given point. It’s like jumping into quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink.

Is it a literal descent into madness? An alcohol/narcotic induced nightmare or is the painter really experiencing his own version of purgatory? What starts as a deserted albeit presentable mansion, shall turn into a hellscape by the time you reach a conclusion. The transformation occurring within the protagonist’s mind and around himself is only a small part of the gameplay. Since the horror elements are dynamic but indirect (no combat or real threat to progression), the atmosphere had to be maintained by brilliantly scripted events. Layers of Fear is a textbook example on how to handle jump scares. Nothing is what it seems and superficiality is only the first trap laid before the players.

Hunting for clues and objects is purely optional since I already explained in the most eloquent way I could without spoiling anything, that collecting anything or everything you come across in-game, shall influence Layers of Fear’s ending. For the sake of argument and further context, I suggest you take your time, explore and interact with as many objects as you can. No threat to the painter’s immediate existence, so no reason to rush or fear that failure shall turn deadly. No “Game Over” even if certain events would have you temporarily considering it so.

I refuse to nitpick any flaws related to this game. I knew that would be hard to begin with but I admit that I was still surprised by the overall experience. It cements the notion and concept of quality independent game development. Sometimes, bright ideas coupled with creative and determined folks can result in high quality projects, without the need of over-inflated budgets. If you like the horror genre, you need to play this at some point, no matter what platform you may prefer. The review key came into my possession through trade but in this particular case, it was originally sold by Humble Bundle. I want to stress that even if you were to pay the full asking price for Layers of Fear, you wouldn’t regret it and the dev team deserves all the support they can muster from fans, present and future ones.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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