A gloriously ghoulish horror game with some trippy transformations, held back by what it borrows from other releases.
If a tree falls in a forest with nobody present, does it make a noise? Does the moon exist when there's no-one to look at it? And is the hallway behind me still an ominous jumble of ornate casements and baleful oil paintings, or has it turned into something else? Layers of Fear makes space for plenty of gristle and gore during its five hour playtime, but the game's greatest weapon is simply the dread of objects misbehaving when left unobserved.
This is an anxiety games in general are well-placed to exploit - game design is, after all, as much a question of hiding as revealing, of quietly rolling out new enemies, areas and so forth while the player is distracted by a pretty explosion or, in this case, a copy of Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son. But it falls to horror designers to make a point of such deceptions, and if Layers of Fear is a little too aimless and beholden to cliche to recommend, it did often leave me afraid to look away.
The game casts players as a reclusive, alcoholic painter, attempting to finish a masterwork in the belly of a rotting mansion while sinking further and further into his delusions. The choice of an artist as protagonist allows for much gleeful poking of the fourth wall, but more importantly, it provides Layers of Fear with an airtight structure. Much as Silent Hill 4 returned to the same boarded-up apartment between levels, so each chapter is a jaunt through a labyrinth of hallucinations which drops you back at your workshop, where the portrait you're completing assumes an increasingly malevolent form. Among developer Bloober's smarter decisions is to let you explore the house almost in its entirety before getting into the meat of the story; later on, you'll catch glimpses of the starting layout and furnishings through the pulsing matrix of your character's insanity.
We're all used to "it's behind you" moments in horror games, but Layers of Fear's contributions are a cut above, with entire environments shape-shifting the instant they escape your gaze. A low-key scenario might run as follows: you walk into a room, typically a firelit room full of smashed-up bookcases, worrying stains and paintings derived from the Thousand Yard Stare school of Golden Age Dutch portraiture. Across the room there is something shiny and interactive-looking. You trot over to collect or fiddle with it, turn around with your prize and oh, what's this? The door isn't there anymore. You turn around again and - crikey, there's a stuffed deer's head millimetres from your nose. You turn again and by Jove, the fireplace is melting. You turn a final time and, thank heavens, there's another door.
At their most effective, Layers of Fear's geometry warping gambits leave you hell-bent on keeping all of the environment in view, all of the time - a mania that had me sidling along skirting boards as though circling a target in a first-person shooter, and tip-toeing backwards down corridors with a paranoid eye resolutely trained on a suspicious prop. It's like an entire game's worth of "Don't Blink". When you do cotton on that something unpleasant has materialised at your back, there's the urge to retreat passive-aggressively into it, elbowing the entity aside before it has the chance to rattle you. Out of the way please, manky ghost lady - I realise you're starved for company, but I'm just here to check out your collection of Rembrandts, thanks.
Sadly, the horrors themselves aren't quite a match for the inventiveness with which they're introduced. Manky ghost lady, for example, is a dutiful nod to the Ring's Sadako and her many descendants; she's joined by a doll whose job is to cry in the distance, drape itself menacingly over stuff, and totter past corridor mouths like a hungover flatmate - business as usual for dolls in games of a certain antiquity. There are also rats that are in theory manifestations of the protagonist's obsessiveness and self-loathing, but which I managed to find cute and reassuring, which is perhaps more a commentary on me than anything else. Add all that to a generous assortment of warmed-over paranormal effects, such as doors squeaking open when you approach, shouty graffiti and outbreaks of highly localised zero gravity.
In particular, Layers of Fear is both empowered and tripped up by its creative debt to PT, 2014's terrifying study in repetition. The art direction aims for a similar level of grimy, greasy photorealism, with a splash of Amnesia: A Machine for Pig's revolting fleshy overtones, and the way the mansion's starting layout persists beneath the surface recalls that eternally recurring L-shaped hallway. It's always engaging to see developers respond to each other in this way, but the structure comes to seem loose and billowy next to PT's horrible compactness, with too many chambers that exist for the sake of a single shock, and too many scenarios that borrow from Kojima Production's game directly.
Even when they aren't familiar from other games and films, Layers of Fear's threats feel inconsequential because none of them actually pose a threat. Player death (in the traditional sense, at least) and combat don't feature, and while that's great inasmuch as horror game combat has an abysmal rap, it does mean that you start thinking of the spooks as hoops to jump through, rather than obstacles. A smattering of bog-standard number or find-the-key puzzles aside, progress is a matter of working out what in the room you're supposed to be scared of, triggering it and making your exit. Fall afoul of manky ghost lady and the only things you stand to miss out on are collectibles that fill in the backstory - an incentive to be cautious, for sure, but hardly a compelling one.
There's also the voiceover, an insipidly written, hammily acted affair that never fails to drain away the tension, even when it's hinting at unspeakable atrocities. Suffice to say that the phrase "maybe I need to kick some artistic sense into your stupid face!" doesn't belong within a thousand miles of anything that bills itself as a psychological chiller. Among the script's sins is that it deals heavily in cliches about mental illness: I never got the sense that the developers understand the demons they're invoking, other than as an excuse to throw together some entertaining grotesques, and this again robs the experience of weight. I'm not asking for edutainment, but something slightly more searching than "alcoholics see the weirdest stuff!" might have helped the writing transcend its baggage.
Though not without merit, Layers of Fear feels like a game that misunderstands its own achievement. The sinister way its spaces metamorphose, their props rearranging themselves whenever you turn around, is plenty unnerving enough on its own; chucking in a bunch of bogeymen and jump-scares from other releases just muddies the waters, and the writing is too leaden to do the story's eventual revelations justice. This is an intriguing specimen that'll keep more cerebral horror buffs diverted, but it's caught somewhere between somebody's impression of a masterpiece and a masterpiece in its own right.