Creepy, disfigured dolls. Fluid-soaked walls within a decaying home. A ghostly, burned pursuer. Layers of Fear has all the requisite scares of a good horror game, and then goes one step further, rendering these gory images in detailed and creative ways, never hinging on generic jump scares. The dolls contort into graphic sculptures, and pulpy blends of color bleed into intricate and unsettling designs across the walls. Rooms become Escherian nightmares, and recurring motifs amplify the sense of dread and unease, with each new loop through a corridor revealing another deadly distortion. By focusing on the twisted imagery of an insane painter, Bloober Team has made the rare horror game that veers closer to art porn than torture porn.
Layers of Fear is strongest when it sticks to its visual metaphors, with the chained or bricked-up pathways literally representing “creator’s block” (to say nothing of those blocked by the protagonist’s bottles, broken brushes, and ruined books) and the various time loops symbolic of “restless memories.” The distortions of perception are also effective at ratcheting up the eeriness, whether it’s as routine as the ghostly doubles appearing in some of the many paintings or as elaborate as when paintings metamorphosize into angry, glaring eyes. The numerous jump scares are effective by nature, but they’re not nearly as unsettling as watching a child’s scrawls self-animate, innocently and then bloodily demonstrating how a happy family tears itself apart.
Though the Victorian corridors that Layers of Fear has players wander through owe a debt to P.T., the game’s visuals never feel derivative. The story, on the other hand, is a weak pastiche of every other descent-into-madness narrative, offering clear insight into what the insane might see, but not at all how they might feel. This is especially apparent in the awful voiceovers that are triggered each time the player follows auditory “whispers” to the hidden memory objects. These objectives are meant to fill in the backstory, as are the text clippings filed away in the cabinets strewn across the house, but they sound so wooden and inauthentic that they distract from the atmosphere.
Nothing is added to the game by knowing more about how the artist’s commercial illustration work was drying up, or how his wife became schizophrenic after a fire left her unable to play the piano. These themes are best interpreted through the game’s rich details, from the ghost’s angry, conflicted scrawls throughout the house to all those empty liquor bottles. Layers of Fear is at its most unsettling when it forces one to make conclusions about the recurring portraitures of a regally posed beast. The explicit writing drains that sense of mystery, to the point at which it makes one wonder if the developers specifically opted for a clumsy push-pull mechanic for objects in the house so as to discourage anyone from learning more.
Thankfully, players can choose to ignore these optional memory fragments; they’re flourishes that don’t take too much away from the game’s underlying concept. That’s due in large part to the exceptional design of the six levels, each of which is associated with one of the main rooms encountered in the prologue. The library culminates in a vertiginous climb up the various shelves; the innocuous music-box carousel in the daughter’s room unleashes a vortex of grasping, needy doll hands and other childish perversions. These specific, mundane horrors get to the root of Layers of Fear: that no matter how much we disguise ourselves, we might all be monsters underneath.