Our review of Layers of Fear, developed by Bloober Team. Available now for PS5 (reviewed), PS4 Xbox X/S, Xbox One, and Windows.
WHAT IS IT?
A prettier but lesser remake of a modern horror classic.
IS IT GOOD?
After a decidedly spooky opening third, the fun starts to wear off.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
The original Layers of Fear is the definition of spine-chilling. Set in the most haunted of haunted mansions, Fear‘s singular thesis – if the protagonist’s perceptions are unreliable, then their world should be too – made for an enthralling, genuinely frightening experience, second only to the Canadian-made Visage for sheer terror. At three hours, Layers of Fear was also a prime example of less-is-more, telling exactly the story it wanted to tell without overstaying its welcome.
Its sequel represented, if not a step backwards, then a fairly significant stumble. Where the original’s “haunted architecture” gimmick – step through a door, then turn around to see the whole house has altered dramatically behind you – made every moment exciting and unpredictable, Layers 2 quickly became tired, rote. Though still inspired in places – the homages to various classic films are worth the visit – Layers 2 failed to instill the same sense of awe, let alone fear, as the original.
Which all makes the existence of the confusingly named Layers of Fear (2023) somewhat hard to fathom. Not quite a remake, not quite a new game, Layers of Fear (2023) awkwardly grafts together the original and its sequel, adds in several brand-new sequences, then layers on some nice new HD graphics and some (less welcome) new gameplay mechanics. The end result, a sort of Frankenstein’s Layers of Fear, starts strong (after all, the original remains a minor masterpiece) then slowly deteriorates as players are forced to slog through all the stuff that comes after.
The shadow of the legendary P.T. looms large over Layers of Fear.
Released – and then quickly pulled from – digital storefronts in 2014, the joint Hideo Kojima-Guillermo Del Toro horror title saw players (at least those lucky enough to play it) wander through a seemingly benign middle-class home, only to confront the many insidious secrets lurking within its walls. There have been many imitators – the best of which, Gone Home, isn’t even a horror game per se – but Layers of Fear always stood out for how well it captured that haunted house vibe.
In Layers of Fear, and now again in Layers of Fear (2023), players take control of a “mad artist” – first, a painter trapped in a Victorian mansion, then, a desperate actor wandering an abandoned cruise ship, and finally, new to this game, a writer whose story serves as the framing device for the other two games. (In fact, the game opens with the writer, though most of your time winds up spent with the Layers of Fearseses you remember.)
The original Layers of Fear is hard to fault. True, the voice acting is dreadful. But fans of Skinamarink or countless “backrooms” meme videos will find much to appreciate in its eerie, unpredictable atmosphere, where every opened door and every turn of a corner promises something new, terrifying, or unnerving. It’s also very simple to understand: you need to make your way through a haunted mansion, and the haunted mansion doesn’t want to let you.
Layers of Fear (2023) front-loads this, the best part of the Layer experience, returning players to the shoes of The Painter as he, once again, confronts demons both internal and external in a beautifully rendered Victorian mansion. If LoF (2023) was just a straightforward retelling of that first game with new graphics, it would probably be enough.
But LoF (2023) doesn’t want to do that. For better – new tricks which play with the expectations of those who recall the original – and for worse – the game’s new emphasis on defence – this isn’t quite the same game.
Honestly, though, it’s mostly for the worst. One of the best parts of the original was the feeling of utter helplessness: you never held a weapon once, and you never stood a chance if one of the game’s monsters caught up with you. Here, you’re handed – shades of Fatal Frame or Alan Wake – a lantern (later, for The Actor, it’s a flashlight) which can be used to solve puzzles, and which is also a means to keep your foes temporarily at bay.
I don’t like it. I don’t like that I feel empowered to survive a ghost’s attack. I don’t like that I’m less frightened by the prospect of a new threat, since I can probably get away from it. It’s not quite game-breakingly bad (Layers of Fear finds better ways to scare you than monsters anyway) but it gives too much to the player, and undermines what made the original special.
I won’t get into my criticisms of Layers 2 (you can read my original review if you like), but the underlying problem with this new release is that it’s just so much of everything that isn’t Layers 1.
So, after getting through The Painter’s story, you’re saddled with the less interesting, significantly longer, Actor’s story. And the interludes featuring the new Writer character. And a new “bridging” story that follows up on the events of the first game. None of this stuff is as compelling or as frightening as those first few hours, when you first find yourself alone and disoriented in the original mansion.
Another problem with having so many hours of Layers of Fear strung together is that it really exposes this series’ ham-fisted handling of mental illness. There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, about leaning into the classic horror trope of the “mad” artist trapped in a madhouse of their own making. But Layers of Fear gets downright nasty about it, and the content warnings when you load it up do little to excuse the fact that this game deals in themes its developers at Bloober Team just aren’t equipped to handle.
The levels of trauma and abuse inflicted on, and – perhaps more importantly – by its central characters can be nauseating, and not in a fun “oh that’s scary” way. Frankly, it’s surprising that after years of criticism on this exact point, Bloober didn’t just use the remake as an opportunity to excise all the exploitative bullshit. The central gameplay loop – which is so strong, and so scary, on its own – would only have benefitted.
On the other hand, now that I’m done complaining so much, I can’t quite not recommend Layers of Fear. If you never experienced the original, it’s worth at least checking out the first third or so of this quasi-remake, which certainly looks a lot nicer. If you did experience the original, this new game can also be quite rewarding, playing with and subverting your expectations based on what came before. The Painter, The Actor, The Writer, and the Candlestick Maker are all waiting for you.
Final score: 7/10 backrooms.
Visit the official website for Layers of Fear (2023) here.