Warning, here be spoilers.
Developer: Bloober Team
Platforms: Windows, OS X, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Genre: Psychological Horror
Layers of Fear is not the sort of game I would normally buy or play. The Steam store tags describe it as psychological horror, walking simulator, and point & click. None of these genres particularly appeal to me. While I do like certain horror games, such as the Doom series, Dead Space 1 & 2, the Castlevania series, they all involve a large number of and quite a variety of monsters that the player is often meant to defeat. Most of the threats in those game are from tangible entities, something that clearly exists in the game world. Psychological horror is not really my thing. A sense of dread lingering in the air with no or few physical entities clearly connected to it just aren't as interesting or threatening to me as actual monsters or villains. I also prefer when the threat can be defeated.
With that said, I went into Layers of Fear with low expectations. I could barely stand 10 minutes of The Canal and American Psycho (horror films that can be considered psychological) was just dull to me. The goal of the game is to finish a painting.... Yeah. The player character is just a painter, not a monster slayer, nor an engineer caught up in a hellish nightmare, nor a soldier, nor a cop. Now my expectaions have plummeted.
So, the game starts, and I thought I heard a firearm being cocked, but no. Because then the game might be interesting. I spent around 10-30 minutes just bumbling around looking for the painting I was supposed to finish. I finally find it and remove the cover, only to find a mostly blank canvas covered in random splashes of paint. Leaving that room, I very slowly explore the house, looking for painting supplies.
I open various drawers and shelves, finding nothing useful, or at least nothing that would have an interact icon on it. Doors and drawers are not just opened by hitting the interact key, they also require a movement from the mouse. Yay. Just what a point & click walking simulator game needed: another layer of tedium. The lighting in this house is very poor and limited, in that I am barely able to see much of anything most of the time, and while stationery light sources are provided, not all of them can be activated. The player character (Walker) also moves very slowly even on "fast walk" and lacks a flashlight, lantern, candle, match, or any way to provide a mobile light source. As I move through the house, I acquire keys to open certain locked doors. The house seems to rearrange itself as I move through it, with the floor plan changing almost every time I close a door. One minute, a door might lead to a kitchen, but once I collect a forgettable item from said kitchen, that same door now leads to a flight of stairs. Eventually, the jump scares happen, and even they are pretty dull, like objects moving on their own, doors slowly opening, occasional glimpses of creepy things out of the corner of the screen, your wife's ghost haunting you, creepy dolls moving in inhuman ways, glass breaking, objects thrown trough glass windows or just falling, gravity taking a day off and such. Only twice did the game succeed in increasing my heart rate (for around a second or 2); the rest of the time I was either bored or sleepy.
So, eventually I find the first thing I need to finish that painting: A bloody piece of human skin. That's not scary. That's just gross and disturbing. I make it back to the painting room, apply the "material", and a bloody image appears on the canvas. I open the door to a different hallway, with spooky new things added to it. This cycle of moving through shifting floors, receive jump scare, poke around in random room, receive jumpscare, find next gross painting material, head to painting room completes a few more times. Every time new "material" is added to the canvas, it warps and bleeds into a new creepy or (trying to be) terrifying image.
The music in the game tries to be haunting, with humming voices, whistling wind, weird bumps, and a female choir or singer, but it doesn't really impress me or keep me awake.
Each completed cycle of finding and adding something to the painting results in the house getting filled with weirder and freakier stuff, like dolls everywhere, doodles and paint everywhere, ghost wife showing up more frequently, and some weird black moving stuff appearing on the walls, floor, and everything else. Rats also show up more frequently, and wack sketches of rats also appear and can be collected, which are be hung in the painting room.
One particular section involves a kid's room that has doodles leading up to it, with animated doodle flames on the wall. Some time later, I arrive in a room filled with dolls and doll houses, and if I pick the wrong path to follow, the game just repeats forever. I make it to the kid's room, see a series of images and text while a zoetrope spins around and lights the room, its range of light and shapes changing as the images and text go around. Eventually, this stops, but now Walker has started spinning for no reason. Apparently, this is a glitch and can temporarily be stopped by pausing the game. I then grab a lock of the wife's hair to use as a paintbrush, return to the painting room, and start a new cycle.
However, things really slow done for me once I have to deal with an ancient phone with a ring dial. I barely remember how to use these obsolete things, and finding the necessary number took longer than I thought. I reach an impossibly tall and warped hallway, and repeatedly fall and fail. After a while, I find the right phone number, enter it, and get berated by ghost wife's voice. Again. After that, I eventually end up in a room where a light illuminates a Ouija board. Because why the hell not at this point? I find a paper with a partial phone number, enter that on the Oujia board, and nothing. After a while, I get annoyed, and consult an Internet guide for the last remaining numbers. The right sequence has been entered and I am allowed to move on.
Nearing the end, I get to a tedious sequence that requires the player dunk their head into a filled bathtub by holding the interact key and doing nothing else. This is repeated several times, and eventually, it is completed and my reward? A human eye in a jar while Walker says insane things. Ew, and yay, that's all I need.
At least that's what I thought! I get to the painting room, ready for the ending and rolling of credits, when the painting decides that exisiting in the same room with Walker is sooo five minutes ago. Now I have to move through the room and pick up wooden checkers pieces (seriously, again? I did this in the kid's room, I think), with each 2 pieces or so opening up a new room. This would be annoying enough, but the spinning glitch from the kid's room takes its revenge and makes this final sequence even more annoying. After a while of looking around, I get the last pieces and the painting reappears, currently giving the image of a bloody zombie.
The final item is applied, and for once, the image looks normal. It's a painting of Walker's wife, looking healthy and alive. The artist seems quite pleased with himself at completing the painting. It doesn't last long though as the wife's face recieves some nasty scarring, her head pops out of the painting and laughs at Walker. Walker cries out in terror and exasperation, tossing the painting into a room of similar paintings, from which ghostly laughs are emitted. Each painting in the room actually looks just fine and not even slightly spooky. I then wait for the credit sequence, but it doesn't happen. Once again, I consult the Internet and find the sketchbook, which is used as a manually scrolling credit roll.
I received the neutral ending, lost all my interest in the game, and deleted it. I didn't bother to try to get the other 2 endings. In the end, I consider this game worse than Dear Esther, because at least I could force the player character in that game to self-terminate at will, even though an annoying voice would just resurrect the character. This game was really dull for me. Psychological horror doesn't work for me, and it didn't here. The jump scares were pretty lame and failed to lift me out of tedium, the music was meh, the graphics....got the job done I guess. Like other point & click games, finding what can be used takes quite some time usually, and like the other walking simulators I played, it bored me to death. There were brief points when it threatened to be interesting, though. Layers of Fear really got me out of my comfort zone, so for a game within its 3 genres, I can't give an expert or experienced rating/review of it, just my honest opinion of it.
So, my final rating of it is
I hated pretty much every second of it, but at least it didn't tick me off, unlike Mighty No. 9.
Copy obtained for free from Humble Bundle giveaway