I’ve always had a special draw to the concept of the haunted house. Being a middle-aged male, I acknowledge that a majority of what goes on is often not about scaring me, which is absolutely the case if I happen to have a female teenager with me. I often enjoy taking my much younger sister to haunted houses and watching the staff push me through to get screams out of her and her friends, but I’m hiding a secret. I’m scared of haunted houses. I shriek when a guy in a hockey mask jumps out with a chainsaw revving up or walk slowly when a hallway narrows and a strobe light starts up. I love to be scared. This remains mostly hidden from people that know me because despite my fears and screams, the focus just isn’t on me because I don’t dare go into a haunted house alone. Layers of Fear is the journey of going into a real haunted house all alone and it’s damn creepy.
There is a plot – and it is twisted – but for the sake of spoilers I’ll just tell you that your character is a middle-aged male painter entering a seemingly empty Victorian house. The house is yours and something happened there, but at the onset you don’t quite know what. Connecting with this main character really doesn’t matter that much because much of his story is told anecdotally, through scraps of paper you find, and from a flashback third person perspective. Traversing the house, on the other hand, is completely up to you. It’s such a separation that I found myself imagining I was the character moving about the house and unraveling events of another person. I should also point out that this house is bigger than you could ever imagine and just like a haunted house events take place that don’t make sense, things aren’t as they seem, and yes there are things lurking in the dark that are out to get you. That’s not to say you can die or fail, much like a haunted house your character is perfectly safe from a fail state, but the challenge becomes can you move on and endure the next psychological obstacle Layers of Fear has planned for you next.
This game scared me plenty. From the moment you enter the house and it’s completely silent save for the pitter-patter of rain outside, there’s a sense of ominous dread. You get stressed by the lack of sound until the moment that the sound returns and you really wish it hadn’t. Sometimes it’s creepy music, other times it’s the shifting of items or the slamming of a door, and on occasion it’s something that’s indescribable. The same is true of the visuals, which have some pretty dark and twisted themes to them, enough so to make me uncomfortable. Then there are the jump scares, oh the well placed jump scares, which remained quite effective all the way up to the end. Clearly members of Bloober Team have worked in a haunted house before because Layers of Fear is great at ushering you into directions and not focusing on any one tactic to creep you out that it’s highly effective. That’s no small feat when you consider that this title is a few hours long, which isn’t as short as it sounds if you’re trapped in a haunted house. Value seekers don’t need to worry because the hunt for all the collectibles, secrets scattered throughout, and prospect of having friends and family play the game in front of you justify plenty of replay. I think what’s so effective is that this title balances the divide of “walking simulators” (Vanishing of Ethan Carter) and “hide-and-go-seek” horror games (Amnesia) into something that stays interesting and in the moment while not ending up frustrating or repetitive.
Layers of Fear is lacking in some areas and the most obvious will be the decision to program this title in Unity. I’m becoming more and more convinced that while Unity is a great (and versatile) engine that provides gorgeous visuals and customization that can be ported to consoles, computers, and mobile it’s a system hog. Right when you start the game up you’ll notice some chug to the point that I had to turn down the visual settings quite a bit on a PC that can run most modern games on top settings. Even when I did, there was still hitching and I’m fairly certain I was seeing only 30 frames per second. I have no doubt that the Xbox One and PS4 versions are as chuggy if not moreso, but given that this is a game about walking and the slower pace adds to the scare factor, it can be somewhat forgiven. Again, I’m also convinced after playing a handful of recent Unity games that it’s just very taxing on a system, any system, and that stands as a barrier to entry. Another problem is getting the game to recognize what you are doing and respond in kind. If using a controller (there’s gamepad support on all platforms) you’ll be navigating the right stick to do things like swing open doors and dial phones, which is replaced by simple mouse movements if you prefer this control scheme. Early on I was unable to get the game to properly register me opening a door and I got stuck in a room for 20 minutes. The same was true of dialing a phone – I had the right number but the game just didn’t register it until I had put it in 2-3 times. Funny enough, I even had problems opening the same door I had problems with in the beginning when I re-encountered it later, so I’m now convinced that particular door is either buggy or simply hates me. I also feel the game is a bit long in the tooth. Yep, I said it, a 3 hour game is too long. There are a plethora of rooms that I don’t think get often repeated and a myriad of scare tactics, but right around the 2 1/2 hour mark (that in early access marked the end of the game) I started to become fatigued with the scares and they weren’t effective anymore. The development team was smart enough to not increase the frequency of the scares, but I was eager to see the end of the story (as you may imagine the plot points ramp up as you near the end).
Layers of Fear is a haunted house brought to life in a way that I haven’t much seen in video games. I’m of course dodging the obvious example, P.T., but that was merely a demo and had a lot of frustrating loops after you get through that first round of rock solid scares. Layers of Fear takes that concept and realizes it into a much more cohesive whole that knows how to keep the setting interesting, keep the scares consistently unique, and also spin a decent yarn. Anyone who is into trying out new horror and just doesn’t see the value in hiding behind a desk while a behemoth shambles by or walking around reading about a tragedy that already happens needs to give it a try. I planned to merely start the game upon first boot and despite it saving with every new doorway, I found myself playing through to the end in one single session. It’s now on my list as a title horror fans need to play, but unlike those other games you don’t really need to have skills to see it to the end, just courage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5
A code was provided by the publisher for this review. Layers of Fear is available on Xbox One, PS4, and Windows (Steam) for $19.99, although it was previously available on Steam Early Access and the Xbox Preview Program (where it has now been updated to the full release for free). It was completed by the reviewer in approximately 3 hours with an overall play time of 4 hours.