Trying to find a good horror game is like trying to find a snowflake in a sauna. After years of playing a wide swath of them, I've come to realize that the art of actually being scary is a difficult feat to accomplish. I feel that the best horror games adhere to three basic tenets: atmosphere, tension, and sound design. Layers of Fear strikes all three of these chords flawlessly. Over the course of the four or five days I spent playing this game (with a total of seven or eight total gameplay hours), I found myself dreading coming back to it. I had the same feeling with Silent Hill 2 and SIREN: Blood Curse. These games instill such a sense of dread and foreboding in the player that the very prospect of coming back to the game is a frightening proposition. That may not sound like a good time to you, but I absolutely love horror games that can accomplish this, and Layers ofFear delivers the goods.
The component in Layers of Fear that stood out to me the most was its expertly crafted sound design. Playing this game with a decent headset is a marvelous (albeit haunting) experience. The whistling of the wind through gaps in window panes, the booming thunder claps, the creaks of loose floorboards all sound so convincing that sometimes I found myself standing next to a window just listening to the muffled rain beating down on it. The music composition is also outstanding even though the songs are used sparingly. Good horror games know how to use sound and the illusion of threat to scare its audience. An unseen entity lurking in the darkness making awful, inhuman noises is one hundred times more terrifying than a monster standing right in front of you. This concept seems like horror game/film 101 even though so many creators struggle with this. Layers of Fear knows how to play with its audience and prey on their fear of the unknown.
The unknown also plays into Layers of Fear narrative. Set in the early 1900's, you play as a painter who fits the unreliable narrator archetype. Knowing that the character you inhabit is unreliable and seemingly insane makes for some very interesting situations. For instance, locations can completely change depending on where you are standing or which direction you are facing within the environment. The uncertainty and constant questioning of what's going to happen next is a real driving force behind this game's penchant for fear. It's completely unnerving knowing that basically anything goes in this world. Layers of Fear also takes a page from the contextual storytelling book. Your enjoyment of the narrative largely revolves around your penchant for hunting down every little scrap of paper and opening up a myriad of cupboards and drawers looking for clues. But there's a weird disconnect with this style of storytelling coupled with Layers of Fear's incredibly ominous and terrifying atmosphere. A part of me wanted to look for these clues but another part just wanted to get the hell out of whatever room I was in because I was too scared to even turn around at times. That's not a knock at the game, but rather just me admitting that I'm a giant baby.
Layers of Fear is also aesthetically arresting. The decision to forgo the flashlight (which has become sort of a ubiquitous item within horror games) was an interesting decision and made the lighting in Layers of Fear all the more important. In order to navigate your way through some rooms, finding a light switch or a lamp is imperative. Even the small task of entering a dark room and fumbling around for a light source is fraught with anxiety. Each room is brimming with personality and a great attention to detail, which makes the item hunting all the more engaging. Even though I flinched at nearly every shadow, I did my best to comb every room for scraps of the story and I still know I missed about a third of the available clues.
I'm going to derail a little here and talk about an issue that I feel needs to be addressed when talking about horror games. I don't know how you feel about jump scares, but personally, I find them somewhat cheap and uninspired. A game that can scare you with an oppressive and dark atmosphere is the harder route to take as a developer, but it makes for an infinitely better horror experience. Layers of Fear does utilize its fair share of jump scares, but they rarely feel cheap or obnoxious. They mainly consist of innocuous auditory scares, like a ball rolling down some steps, or a painting falling off a wall.
Even though I absolutely adore this game, there are a few hitches along the way I couldn't help but notice. And when I say hitches, I mean that quite literally. Near the end of the game, the framerate had a tendency to hitch and dip which broke the immersion at times. Thankfully, this was a rare occurrence and only happened to me a few times near the games conclusion. Speaking about the ending... without wanting to give anything away, the ending fell a little flat for me. Not because I was disappointed with the plot wrap-up, but because the last thirty minutes or so seemed to lack that sense of dread that had been accumulating throughout the entirety of the game. Also, if you pick up this game, do yourself a favor and turn off the head bob option, unless you enjoy feeling like you're constantly being rocked back and forth in the hull of a ship.
My complaints with Layers of Fear are minor and in all honesty, this is one of the best horror experiences I've played in years. Layers of Fear isn't just about being terrifying, as it has a solid story that deals with some dark material even though you could very well miss the majority of it if you aren't diligent about investigating your environment. You may also find that this game is somewhat reminiscent of a little demo by the name of P.T.; and as disappointed as most of us are that Silent Hills will most likely never come to fruition, Layers of Fear will definitely scratch that itch. So if you want a horror game that is actually, you know... scary, then look no further. I cringed every time I looked over my shoulder, I broke out in a cold sweat two or three times, I felt just as unhinged as the protagonist, dreaded approaching every flickering light, and I loved every minute of it.