Release Date: May 28, 2019Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, XBODeveloper: Bloober TeamPublisher: Gun MediaGenre: Psychological Horror
There’s a fascinating juxtaposition that runs throughout Layers of Fear 2. It’s a trippy, terrifying horror experience that conjures grotesque visions you won’t likely be able to unsee. But at the same time, the game is positively ravishing, a technical and artistic powerhouse that’s gripping the whole way through even if it isn’t exactly the scariest horror game on the market.
Layers of Fear saw you inhabit a maddened painter; this time around, you play as a troubled thespian wandering the halls of an ornate ocean liner from the early 20th century. Psychological horror is the going concern here, and the game creates an intoxicating sense of disorientation by ushering you through tight cabins and corridors whose walls seem to be shifting and transforming when you’re not looking.
For instance, in a chilling moment early in the game, I walked into what seemed to be an ordinary cabin, which was connected to a narrow hallway with a tiny bathroom. I moved from the main room, through the hallway, and into the bathroom, and when I turned around, suddenly there was no hallway. I was inches away from a wall I was sure wasn’t there a millisecond ago. Pretty sure, at least.
There are a lot of little tricks of the mind sprinkled throughout the game, and the cumulative effect of them is amusing at the very least. I never found myself actually frightened by the fact that the dark closet I just walked out of turned into a dingy kitchen, while I had my back turned, but it was certainly amusing and kept me on my toes. There aren’t any overt threats of violence in the game, so the way developer Bloober Team instills fear is by making you feel perpetually off-balance, unwelcome, and unsafe.
The key to the game’s ability to creep you the fuck out is the stellar presentation and art design, which work harmoniously to create a thick, pervasive atmosphere that can be extremely transportive and encompassing. Every room is rendered beautifully, down to the tiniest details — like the way light bounces off of the cabins’ polished wood molding, or the way every material looks tactile and lived-in. The sound design contributes just as much as the visuals, giving the presentation a true sense of three-dimensionality that gives you a rock-solid sense of where you are in the environment (which the developers, of course, manipulate and warp at times to make you feel just a little nauseous). But it really is the outstanding synergy between all aspects of the presentation that make this game seep into your pores.
Bloober Team’s main source of inspiration, aesthetically and thematically, is golden age cinema. References to classic movies can be found at just about every turn, with nods to The Shining, Psycho, Metropolis, The Night Hunter, The Thing, and more woven into the narrative. In fact, the game’s codename when it was in development was “Project Melies,” a reference to the great George Melies, whose ahead-of-its-time film A Trip to the Moon is paid homage to in spectacular fashion late in the game. Even the pacing and structure of the experience is cinematic in that the scares and silences are spaced out deliberately and rhythmically — the best films are musical in their storytelling and Bloober Team seems to subscribe to the same philosophy.
It’s difficult to break down the game’s central narrative for two reasons. Firstly, it’s so nebulous and lyrical that, honestly, it was hard for me to follow. I definitely felt the emotion and gravity of the themes, and the story becomes clearer as you progress through the game’s five acts, but this thing rides the line between poetic and obtuse to the point where, at times, I just gave up trying to understand what the hell was going on.
The second reason it’s hard to discuss the story in detail is that, despite how confusing it is, it’s somehow also really, really heartfelt and chilling and surprising and should be experienced in its purest form, with little to no knowledge going in. In broad terms, it’s a character study propelled by themes of trust, obsession, family, loss, and the performative, theatrical nature of real life. We all play our roles, we all lie, we all say what we need to to get by in an insanely cruel world, and Bloober Team explores these ideas with great nuance and elegance, while also throwing in creepy, life-size marionettes that lurch out at you when you least expect it.
Layers of Fear 2 is a love letter to the dark side of the classic cinemasphere that should be a blast for anyone who enjoys horror games and/or old movies. If it’s got a weakness, it’s that a handful of sections in the game — which see you running away from a stalking blob man…thing — are perhaps a little too difficult to clear. These chase sequences took me multiple tries to complete, which momentarily broke the wonderful spell the game had cast on me up until that point. Some might not be satisfied with the game’s seven to eight-hour length, but I found the game’s length to be satisfactory, especially because, like a great film, the game never wore out its welcome, and it left me wanting more.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.