At a certain point in your life, horror films cease to be scary. You start to notice the character archetypes, the manufactured scares and the entire framework upon which the film exists. Before you know it, you can’t watch Hostel or Scream without picturing Eli Roth in gray slacks and a parka sniggering behind the A camera. Hollywood’s version of horror stops being scary and its allure is lost forever.
The good news? Games are fast filling this void. When you‘re gripping a controller with headphones suffocating your ears, you’re suddenly sitting in Mr Roth’s director’s seat with no idea of what’s coming next. The horror in videogames is alive and well, brought alive by a Swedish dev house called Frictional Games, which has re-invigorated the genre with first-person horror titles like Penumbra, Amnesia and Soma.
Layers of Fear is the latest addition to the stable – the work of of an immensely talented Polish development house called Bloober Team. The developers borrow a page from the master’s playbook, thrusting you into a first-person perspective with no weapons at your disposal, up against a world designed to scare you. Amnesia is a clear inspiration, and even the controls have been designed to feel similar to Frictional’s games.You interact with the environment by depressing the right trigger and pulling back on the left stick, imitating the movement of a hand in real life.
But unlike Amnesia or Penumbra,Layers of Fear is not about warding off enemies. You’re a famous painter battling a case of lost memory and a dose of psychosis who opens the door to your old home to finish your magnum opus: one final painting that needs missing ingredients to complete. You explore the husk of your mansion to find these pieces, walking a gauntlet of otherworldly visions and spooky memories.
The mansion, it turns out, is the true star. This used to be your home but soon you’re quaking in the face of a world that’s changing before your eyes, lights flickering, telephones humming and paintings bleeding at their seams while a context-sensitive soundtrack keeps you jumping. In one delicious moment three-quarters through the game I came across a message that read, “Don’t look behind you”, and chose to ignore the sign. Do so at your peril. All the while, lightning and rain thrash against the windows and rats scuttle beneath the floorboards. The mansion can dissolve at your feet, disappearing and emerging entirely new, while your pulse races and your cheeks burn.
Bloober Team flaunts the videogame rule-book by disregarding the way most games treat level progression: the levels change while you’re traversing them. Doors lock behind you, scenery changes on the fly and entire levels can be upended while your back is turned. It’s a masterstroke. Your character is mentally ill, you realize, so the changing scenery makes sense and it gives Bloober Team the freedom to trap you in levels without ever making you backtrack. Linearity becomes your friend, not foe, because it keeps you stumbling towards one of three endings.
No matter which ending you get, Layers of Fear will be an experience you’ve discovered on your own. The game’s understated narrative allows you to piece together what happened in the mansion, from finding physical clues to family notes left in your wake. By the game‘s denouement, you’ve stitched together the facts the count.
Gamers who first played Layers of Fear on PC last year will be interested to know that the PS4 version reviewed here includes the Steam Early Access chapters released in September (an unfinished portion of the game which teased the full story to come) as well as the new, concluding chapters to the tale. The port, however, is far from perfect. On Sony’s console, Layers of Fear suffers form severe technical problems and offers up an unstable framerate from start to finish, a situation that gets particularly bad during the game’s final two chapters.
On PCs the situation might be different, but no matter which system you play it on, by the end of the game you’ll be willing to forgive Layers of Fear for its technical blemishes. With 3 different endings and a decent price tag (R300) to boot, Bloober Team has created a value-for-money proposition that you won’t soon forget. Thrown into the shoes of an artist in the grip of madness, you’re tasked with piecing together a grisly story that feels like an hallucinatory descent down the rabbit hole. It will turn your blood cold. Yes, at times the developers overuse their clever visual tricks, but for a debut horror title from a young independent team, it’s exciting to think of where Bloober can go from here.
In fact, Layers of Fear is yet another reminder that no other medium does scary quite like videogames. In the face of formulaic Hollywood slasher films, Bloober Team has created something quiet, considered and remarkably spine-tingling.
8/10 Watch out for our video review later this week.