by Johnathan Irwin
reviewed on PC
Happy Little Trees
Every now and then I go back and watch reruns of Bob Ross painting. While some may find it boring, I find such tranquility in it. Talented hands bring to life pictures of peaceful landscapes, as a stroke of a brush comes to another, another and another. Happy little trees, a common theme. Art comes in many forms, but perhaps the oldest and widest variant of it is painting. Whether it be the landscapes of Bob Ross, Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel, Van Gogh's portraiture, the list goes on. For every painter, a past. For every portrait, a story.
Layers of Fear paints a grim portrait of a struggling artist, a past submerged in his work. Its intention is to deliver horror, atmosphere and story in a reasonably priced package. The question is, does it achieve this?
Layers of Fear starts off in a manner similar to many other horror titles: an uncertain protagonist making their way into an abandoned structure with a vibrant history and a veiled dark past. The initial setup is honestly a bread-and-butter for the genre, some may even say cookie cutter. But after the first few minutes of Layers of Fear have passed, the norm is set aside for a much more psychological experience. Something along the lines of the infamous P.T., Layers of Fear alternates between minutes that feel like an eternity of worrying, to short bursts of fear that keep the adrenaline running for minutes afterwards.
The house where the game takes place is the star of this game, in a sense being one with the protagonist. As the player proceeds, environments warp and change around you and you're left wondering just what is about to happen next. From paint slowly dripping down the walls, to rooms and furniture literally melting around you, the physical manifestation of an artist's torment is plain to see. I can't delve too much into the story, as even giving away the slightest bit could taint the experience, but it's an eerie look into depression, post traumatic stress, addiction and other ailments of the mind that makes for a bleak, but enticing, color pallette for the game to paint with.
Beauty In Darkness
While graphics very rarely make or break a game for me, I cannot state enough that in a horror game the more visually appealing it is, the more likely it is to get the blood pumping. Layers of Fear is both beautiful and impressive. There are definitely better looking games out there, but the fact that this level of detail has been delivered on a Unity based game is honestly impressive to me. The game is absolutely full of little details that helped to immerse me in the experience. Whether it's the subtle glow of a candle, the rain pattering against the windows or the perfectly executed appearance of massive amounts of paint pooling at my feet, the little details are a great accent to an already good looking environment.
A setting that twists and turns around you may not be a new idea - we've seen it before in Hektor, The Hat Man and many more - but there's something special about the reasoning behind it in this title. Without giving away too much away story wise, the environment seems to be a direct reflection of the turmoil the protagonist is struggling to wade through. Where one moment there can be uneasy calm, the next can be a horrifying mess, and then a few moments later or somewhere in between as there are moments of reflection. There are several times you'll walk down a hallway only to meet a dead end, then to turn around and see you're trapped in a room with no way out. Doors may appear, maybe they lead somewhere or maybe they're another dead end; another creative block on the fragile mind of the artist. Blending the environment so well with the story sets Layers of Fear apart from other horror titles that are big on scares, but small on narrative delivery.
Warning: May Contain Rats!
But with high praise there must be a dark side, as nothing is perfect. There are various offenses in the game, and though they don't detract much from the overall experience they are still worth noting. The first, and most glaring flaw, is with the game length. In a little less than three hours, I was able to experience the game in full and unfortunately there is little replay value to be had unless you're achievement hunting. It's an enjoyable three hours, but for $19.99 many gamers may not be willing to pay the price for so little in return.
The second may sound nitpicking, but I have a big problem with a common occurrence in the game: rats. While a rat infestation may add a very small layer to the story, it seems to be more of a diverting tactic to those wondering about the overall plot to see so many scrawls and mentions of these pesky rodents. When there is a brief lull in the suspense, long enough for the player to calm down and begin constructive speculation, there is sure to be an obnoxious amount of rat related content. Maybe it just rubbed me the wrong way, but honestly it just felt like unnecessary filler to drag the game out a half hour longer or so as well as keep players from figuring out the story too quickly.
If you're a horror fan, or even just a fan of storylines that make you think, Layers of Fear should be right up your alley. Though it can be completed in a couple of sittings or less, it's an experience not easily forgotten. When I started the review, I asked myself if it could deliver on its ambitious promises and by the end of the game it was a resounding ‘yes’ from me.
Compelling story, beautifully detailed environments, a near perfect blend of scary moments and tense downtime.
Short length for the price tag, rat content is unnecessary filler.