You find yourself in the entry hall of what appears to be a manor in the early twentieth century, a heavy rain obscuring the glass panels of the door behind you. Who you might be, where you might be, and why you might be there are all unknown to you as you use the click and drag control scheme to open the ornate door before you. You’re greeted by the classic empty foyer, with many locked doors flanking you and a well-lit grand stair case that seems to indicate where to go. Eventually, after finding a few notes and letters, then making your way into a room with an unfinished painting, you learn that you are in the manor of a demented artist, and to learn what took place here, you must unlock doors. complete strange puzzles and find different body parts that will be used in the completion of this artist’s magnum opus.
This sounds fairly unique, right? Like some sort of Picture of Dorian Gray that has gone even worse? Well, it is. Layers of Fear, developed by (what was then a small group) Bloober Team, was released in 2016, and was generally well-received. The game was also made with the Unity engine, which may be surprising to some, considering the first-person 3-D perspective and how well executed it was.
Following a similar formula to games like Outlast and Amnesia, Layers of Fear is a psychological horror walking simulator with some hardcore puzzling solving. Its Victorian theme is paired with the fabled gameplay loop of P.T. as you spend much of your time traversing the same hallways as they distort with each walkthrough. The story (and sometimes the house literally) unfolds as you acquire more reagents for this grotesque image you are helping the artist to finish. You begin to learn that this painter has become enveloped in his work, ignoring his beloved wife and child, resorting to drinking, and the home falling into disarray. Without spoiling the story, you begin to see there is more at hand to this house than an obsessive painter and his neglected home, and the game does fairly well at presenting this story if you pick up the notes and items.
Where the game begins to struggle though is sometimes it is obscure past the point of intrigue and becomes a bit confusing. I found myself googling the solutions of some of the puzzles in the latter half of the game. The most notorious of which being a Ouija board that I encountered, which didn’t seem to have any clues in the room or any of the rooms that recently preceded it. Another issue I dealt with when playing this on the PS4 was that whenever I would get closer to the story-driving clues, the game would utilize the Dualshock controller’s built-in speaker to emit a grating white noise as you drew closer. While this is helpful in locating the clue, I would’ve liked to have the option to turn this feature off.
Even with these minor annoyances, Layers of Fear is still an excellent game that delivers well on tone and scene structuring. Some of the levels in the game were truly unique and memorable, with the level and environmental design typically being intuitive, with lights and bloodstains serving as good sign posting, or sometimes terrifying warnings of what is always lurking in the shadows of the shifting manor. The gameplay loop is made parse-able and entertaining by the house resetting each time you add an ingredient to this painting. While I was irritated by some puzzles, I was quite entertained and challenged by some, which made the completion of those puzzles feel incredible.
All in all, I found the short, 5 hour playthrough very worth the time I invested and would recommend this game to anyone who wants to escape into the horrors of a Victorian manor.
Warning: Video below contains scenes that could be harmful to viewers with photosensitivity.