Layers of Fear

Layers of Fear PS4 Review

The demise of the Silent Hills project is still a sore point for fans of the franchise, particularly for those who played the PT demo. Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro had big plans for the beloved but notoriously diminished IP, until relationships with Konami sadly entered freefall. PT was intended as a demonstration of what was possible under this creative duo, and it left fans and newcomers alike wanting more. Fortunately for them developers don’t live in a vacuum, and there’s been a surge of what could be unkindly termed ‘imitators’ aiming to emulate the success of the pleasingly terrifying ordeal of that ‘Playable Teaser’. Layers of Fear is one such game, but despite its obvious position in the time and place of the industry, it’s unfair to view this game as either a tribute or a derivative.

It begins in similar fashion. A minimal text intro outlining key themes of loss and redemption gives way to the benign environment of a warmly lit family home. Enter through the front doors however and it’s clear something has gone wrong. Foreboding black spatters in front of locked doors, noises upstairs, surreal portraits and strange notes finished with horrific illustrations allude to a broken home, and the broken minds that dwell within. The slow-burning sense of dread is certainly reminiscent of P.T, but the devices to achieve it are frequently proprietary . What on earth is that ominous painting all about? Who draws something so horrible and leaves it lying around on a notepad in his office? Did it just get darker all of a sudden? From the very first minute, Layers of Fear feels like its own game whether you’re familiar with recent genre touchstones or not.

You'll be seeing a lot of this painting as it changes throughout the story due to your actions.

You’ll be seeing a lot of this painting as it changes throughout the story due to your actions.

Along the P.T blueprint the world mutates around you, but the world itself is more vast and the possibilities greater. Nothing is guaranteed. It begins so subtly that you may not even notice the locked door unlocking itself, or the aforementioned portrait leaving the wall. Pretty soon you’re advancing at a snail’s pace, hugging the sides, clinging to the patches of light in darkened rooms, scrabbling for a light switch, scared to even turn around in case a wall, a door, or some horrible apparition has broken through the floorboards. Soon you’ll wonder how it is (and if you are) advancing at all in an environment that constantly rips up its own endlessly revisionist rulebook. Certain moments of this game were so well-wrought, so brilliantly built that I found myself stopping to hit the ‘Share’ button on my controller more than once. Often you’ll think you’re making something of nothing over a little inconsistency in the environment only to have it explode in to a full-blown horror set piece, and that meeting of minds between the player and the creators is a real joy to behold. The sense of macabre playfulness lags a little towards the end, but for a game that invites such obvious accusations of riding coattails, an hour spent with Layers of Fear is enough for it to carve its own creative place.

Amidst all this unpredictability and bombast, that it all hangs together as you chart an uncertain and broken path through the world is impressive. The real genius of the game is in the balance of control, relieving the player of just enough to inspire fear, returning just enough to avoid a sense of futility. The world might turn upside down and the lights might go off, but you’re sure you saw a door somewhere over that way. The tightrope is tensed without ever breaking. There are also multiple paths and a variety of items to collect, and providing you can stomach it, you will want to go back for seconds. It’s difficult to put an exact time-frame on completion as so much depends on how you choose to move through the world, but you shouldn’t feel cheated when the credits roll.

This creepy gramophone features in one of the game's more bizarre mini-puzzles.

This creepy gramophone features in one of the game’s more bizarre mini-puzzles.

The story unravels through such collectibles: fragments of notes, newspaper clippings and assorted memorabilia, frequently triggering half-remembered flashbacks for the character. Some are key and mandatory, others peripheral and optional. Whether you collect or pass them by, the outline of the story is always visible and compelling enough to add an emotional weight to the depictions of physical and metaphysical horror. The key challenge in such games is always forcing yourself to play them because of their content, enthralling but psychologically challenging as it is, but there’s also a number of weirdly abstract and also more literal puzzles populating the environment, forcing you to wrack your probably distraught mind. It’s never The Witness, but one puzzle in particular had me scratching my head a little. Unlike the Resident Evil series where puzzles always feel like an annoyance, here they provide a welcome respite from a greater sense of threat.

Boringly, the game has been criticised on technical grounds for its frequently lagging framerate and a small nebula of visual imperfections. Upon starting the game on my PS4 I noticed some slowdown, but in a matter of minutes I was so swaddled in the blackness of its universe that such things paled to insignificance. There is nothing terminal here, and although a more high-profile game like Outlast is undeniably better synchronised with the system architecture, I’d take Layers of Fear over it every time as an experience.

What lurks around the corner is compounded by what may suddenly appear right in front of you. Happily though, Layers of Fear offers far more than cheap jumps and shocks.

What lurks around the corner is compounded by what may suddenly appear right in front of you. Happily though, Layers of Fear offers far more than cheap jumps and shocks.

This is a burgeoning sub-genre but Layers of Fear has to be a high-point, and it deserves to be seen as a standard bearer. It eclipses the deceased PT, a game people were willing to buy pre-loaded PS4’s to get their hands on, in both scale and variety. It offers a rich and surreal world where anything feels possible, reigned over by a scalp-pricking electric storm of terror. Whether or not the PT hype-ship has finally sailed in to the distance, you should pick this up and give it more than the viewing of a YouTube Let’s Play. Work like this should be rewarded.

9 out of 10