“Comparisons are odious,” Jack Kerouac noted in The Dharma Bums. “It’s all the same old void, boy.” In general, a videogame or any piece of entertainment succeeds or fails as a singular entity, right? But I had just finished playing Close to the Sun, a photo-realistic puzzle game set on a massive cruise ship, populated by jump scares, spectral figures and the occasional frustrating chase sequence. Now, here I was playing Layers of Fear 2, a photorealistic mystery horror puzzle game, set on a cruise ship, populated by… wait for it… jump scares, spectral figures and the occasional frustrating chase sequence. There were definitely moments where I was uncertain which game I was playing.
We’ll leave the comparisons behind, duly noted but ultimately irrelevant. Layers of Fear 2 is a sequel to a horror puzzle game with a story that lived inside the mind of an artist. In the sequel, we’re living inside the mind of an actor, in theory on-board a cruise ship for the purpose of starring in a film. As our actor wanders the labyrinthine, shape-shifting, claustrophobic corridors of the ship, both the game’s narrative and central metaphor unfold. We’re exploring the character’s psyche, deep and dark and full of uncertainty, insecurity and monsters in the shadows. Just the like best dream — or nightmare — Layers of Fear is full of surreal juxtapositions, Dali-esque environments and unsettling armies of mannequins
Like the game’s graphics, Layers of Fear 2 ‘s audio design is detailed and as creepy as a well-made haunted house. Aside from a disconcertingly half-formed monster later in the game, most of the scares in Layers of Fear 2 come from sudden, unexpected sounds and the usual variety of creepy surprises dropped into the scene without warning. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that a story and the game about a movie actor would have detailed and evocative sets and sound. Although they’re less successfully realized than the environments, there are occasional cameos by human and supernatural figures and in general the voice acting and narration are well done.
Less of a walking simulator than Close to the Sun, a great deal of Layers of Fear 2 ‘s core experience is exploration, puzzle solving, and piecing together the story from environmental clues. Ideally, all this would combine with the game’s disorienting visuals to add up to a really unsettling tale, but the tension is undermined over and over by a lack of direction and puzzles with solutions that are easily missed. Poking around a room looking for clues to an arbitrary puzzle halts the narrative drive, siphons away the tension and makes the experience feel artificially gamey. Stories where the central character is a cipher risk the audience not really caring much about him or her and creates an experience where the stakes are pretty low. Layers of Fear 2 plods along through its story and environments a long time before much of anything of consequence happens. Layers of Fear 2 is over and done in less than 6 hours. In many ways it’s the kind of game that would be perfect in VR.
Layers of Fear 2 is impressive to look at and listen to but like so many games in its genre, it feels sterile. Dream logic environments and an actor’s unraveling personality are interesting hooks but the game does little to make us care much about the star of the show to begin with. Real fear comes from attachment and the prospect of losing something or someone close to us. By the time Layers of Fear 2 has really defined its leading man, we’ve long grown impatient for the voyage to be over with.