I hobble into the foyer of what is presumably my own house, a dim light and occasional cracks of lightning are all I have to navigate. The paintings' grotesque smiles seem to be aimed at me. Unsettling, calm music is playing from a gramophone somewhere upstairs. The door to the bathroom is half-open and I don't really want to look inside. These are the first five minutes of Layers of Fear. These are the best minutes of Layers of Fear.
Layers of Fear is a game about a deeply troubled artist with a creative block trying to finish his magnum opus, all in the confines of his strange house. The entire game is spent here, in a building with a layout that seems to shift on a dime. The painter will be exploring through walking and investigating objects, not unlike Gone Home. While walking simulators get a bad rap from most, myself included, I do think that giving one a horror flavor is usually a recipe for a success. Combat is frequently the worst part of any horror game, so stripping the game of any way to fight back at all really gives a sense of helplessness.
In a game focused on interacting with environments, it's usually a good idea to make said environments visually appealing, which is done masterfully here. This is seriously one of the best looking games I've played in recent memory, with models being wonderfully detailed and not a single muddy texture in sight. The game's paintings are also quite well done, probably being the most unnerving aspect Layers of Fear has to offer. When the world between painting and reality is blurred, there are some cool effects, especially one particular moment involving a landscape populated by apples.
The atmosphere is actually quite nice, with the game having a pretty firm grasp on what makes old houses so scary. Throughout my playthrough, I frequently had that slight hesitation before opening a door, dreading what would be behind it. That is until about twenty minutes in, where I realized a disturbing trend. Nearly every room I walked into had some sort of scare. It was startling at first. It was a bit of a jolt the second time. But when I was just musing over how overused the scares were and a painting literally flew off the wall with a crash accompanying it, I had my limit. The entire game is basically just a very long corridor filled with things ready to pop out at you, less like a sprawling adventure and more like going down the tracks of a dark ride at an amusement park.
The game is packed full of horror clichés that were never too scary to begin with, and become less and less frightening every time they're used. Sure, seeing a fractured porcelain doll once might be a bit weird. When the game is packed with them, at one point literally swarming with them, it's just not effective. Any potentially effective scares are ruined by the fact that everything is fired off in a rapid succession, demonstrating a lack of understanding on what makes horror great. Most of the horror isn't even the scare itself, it's the buildup, waiting for something to happen. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, "There is no horror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it." I couldn't put it better myself.
The worst part is that buried beneath all of these party-store scares, the game has a genuinely interesting story that could honestly be fantastic if adapted with slightly more restraint, and the whole thing is backed up by a clearly passionate team of developers. However, all the passion and graphical fidelity in the world can't make up for a poor execution. When you peel away Layers of Fear's shallow layers of fear, you will find a truly dull game at its core.
Layers of Fear was reviewed on Steam with a code provided by the developer.
A beautiful and potentially fantastic horror story squandered by cheap scares presented at a breakneck pace.