A good remake or remaster is never a surprise in this day and age, who doesn't want to play a game they liked in a shiny new package? We've seen these remasters take all kinds of forms too whether it be changes to graphics alone, or alterations to key elements like controls or story. Layers of Fear (2023) takes their approach to remastering to a new level packaging previously released titles together, while adding a new overarching narrative to try to tie the story of Layers of Fear into a single package. The idea of creating a single succinct story might be good on paper, but in practice how does this new approach to Layers of Fear affect the experience?
The core gameplay of Layers of Fear has the players walking a mile in the shoes of a creative who had dedicated themselves to a certain vocation. For the original game, it is The Painter, a man who spent so much time elevating his work above his family and their own passions that he drove a wedge between them until it was too broken to fix. Layers of Fear 2 however has you playing as The Actor, one who dedicated themselves to a life of method acting and "the next big role" after suffering a childhood of abuse. Trauma and insanity over one's passion are core to all of the games and doubled down upon in the story of the Writer, the new character who is writing about the subject of the games.
How the player learns about this story is through exploring the setting of each game. As The Painter you get to explore the house that he once shared with his family. The path you need to progress through any of these titles is always straightforward, when you enter a room there will only be one way out of the room. The times that this isn't the case are usually because the game is about to mess with you in a different way. Something that I absolutely love about Layers of Fear is how the path will so frequently ignore physics and architecture. You could walk into a broom closet to pick up and inspect an item only to turn around and see a completely different hallway staring back at you.
Of all of the games that we saw coming out after the P.T. craze it's been impressive to see that Layers of Fear is really the only game, let alone a franchise, that has taken the concept of narrative-based psychological horror game and been able to craft a relevant story around it's gameplay.
In terms of who your protagonists are, you start each game with very little context as to who each character is and why they're the subject of the game. Interacting with items along your path, such as written documents or other objects, pieces of the story will begin to fall into place. Written documents do a lot to provide you with hard facts about the situation, while memories and internal dialogue will add emotion to the mix. The writers do a good job not only showing the cracks in the sanity of these internal voices but also the dangers of unreliable narrators as regularly these thoughts would be contradicted before too long.
Between each of the stories available the original adventure of The Painter is the standout. With the equivalent of a haunted house for you to move through with themes of passion as well as falling in and out of relationships, it's something inherently more relatable as a player. In horror situations, it's so important to have that buy-in with your players. The story of The Actor, while far more cinematic, might have more interesting moments to watch didn't quite draw me in as much. For a fan of movies and entertainment, there are a number of fun movie easter eggs and references littered throughout Layers of Fear 2 that would bring a smile to my face amidst the weird visuals and mannequins.
The addition of The Writer's story wasn't as much about having The Writer be present, but to have a way to introduce the Rat Queen, the supernatural entity that is influencing the protagonists, earlier. The Writer is introduced to the Rat Queen via a portrait within the first five minutes of the game and converses with her further throughout, referring to her as her muse. Overall you'll spend maybe 30 minutes total with The Writer as you briefly return to her and the Lighthouse she's writing in between odd chapters of the other games. As The Rat Queen is the only thing truly in common between the stories The Writer's addition to create a throughline of story context in this collection is successful, though very superficially.
How the game has been remastered on Unreal Engine 5 has a few positive impacts, but one massively detrimental one. When I first booted up the game on my Xbox Series X in the well-lit lighthouse I had no difficulty playing, but once I was exploring the darkened halls of The Painter's abandoned house it was impossible to see anything. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to fix this in-game either, as while there was a space for a gamma setting in-game it directed me to change the settings on my TV. While with some tweaking I was able to get the game's visuals to a playable state unfortunately it meant that I had to play through this graphically enhanced edition of Layers of Fear with blown-out whites and distorted colors.
Layers of Fear (2023) | Final Thoughts
Layers of Fear (2023) has ended up as a strange collection. It sought to make an enhanced experience of the original games with updated graphics and contain a new storyline to better weave the narratives together. Unfortunately, though the look of the game rendered it unplayable on my TV without altering display settings, and offered a superficial connection between the stories. Thankfully these don't take away from the original stories themselves, with the original Layers of Fear becoming a story I enjoyed even more replaying it now seven years later. If you've already played the original games chances are this collection won't do much to improve your experience, but if you've never had a chance to check out these games and have a spare afternoon or two it's an enjoyable set of games to play.
Layers of Fear (2023) was reviewed on Xbox Series X with a copy provided by the Developer over the course of 8 hours of gameplay - all screenshots were taken during the process of review.
- Contains the original games
- Fun physics
- Unplayable on display
- The Writer adds little