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Layers of Fear Review

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Not since 2016’s Suicide Squad was followed up by The Suicide Squad in 2021 has there been such a flagrant attempt to make something as needlessly difficult to Google as the new Layers of Fear. This 2023 psychological horror game is neither a sequel nor a total remake of the 2016 original of the same name. Instead it bolts together the first installment, its 2019 follow-up, previously released downloadable content, and a couple of new playable stories to form a Frankenstein’s monster of manipulated hallway horrors freshly reimagined in Unreal Engine 5. Yet while there’s no question that this Layers of Fear is the best-looking and most extensive version of these disturbing stories to date, it’s a package that fails to add up to anything greater than the sum of its parts – and none of those parts are strong enough to provide more than a handful of surface-level scares, let alone layers of them.

Heavily inspired by Hideo Kojima’s masterful and now depressingly unobtainable P.T., Layers of Fear places us into the tortured minds of a series of artists – a painter, an actor, and a writer – and invites us to piece together their tragic backstories by scouring each surreal setting for handwritten notes, truncated newspaper clippings, and other evidence of past trauma they’ve endured – or inflicted. It certainly turns out all the tricks in an effort to unsettle along the way – each tentative step through its haunted houses is accompanied by sudden thunderclaps and distant screams, ominous graffiti scrawled on the walls, flickers of menacing shapes in the shadows, and pieces of furniture dancing around you like it’s disco night at the Evil Dead cabin. There are some genuinely clever perspective tricks employed on occasion – like peering through an empty picture frame on an easel to reveal a door in the wall behind it – and it’s a true shock the first time you turn your head and Layers of Fear treats the level’s floorplan like a Mad Magazine fold-in by completely rearranging the environment while your back is turned.

Layers of Fear treats the level’s floorplan like a Mad Magazine fold-in by completely rearranging the environment while your back is turned.


However, when I first played the original in 2016 I found that Layers of Fear repeated these geometry-jumbling techniques so often that I quickly learned to anticipate them, rapidly diminishing their shock value, and that’s a problem that not only persists in this latest release but is exacerbated further by its protracted length. P.T. was able to more successfully employ similarly disorientating tactics partly because it was so short, but stretched out over the 13 hours of Layers of Fear’s combined campaigns the constant walking in loops starts to feel more like arbitrarily jumping through hoops. The hurried, carnival ride-style pacing is such that it’s just one telegraphed jump scare after another with rarely enough room for any real dread to seep in.

Another major problem with bridging the events of the original Layers of Fear with that of Layers of Fear 2 in order to make a singular story is that the latter is both weaker and longer than the former, which left me with the overall impression that this combined Layers of Fear had peaked within its opening half. Layers of Fear 2’s story, which follows the plight of an actor exploring a haunted cruise liner, leans a bit too hard on the films that inspire it – lifting wholesale scenes and iconography from the likes of Psycho, The Shining, and Seven, without forging enough of its own identity to make it feel like anything more than a derivative retread of its predecessor’s tour of torture. Being forced to play through them back to back is like watching I Know What You Did Last Summer and then immediately rolling straight into I Still Know What You Did Last Summer – you’ll go from Jennifer Love Hewitt to Jennifer Barely Tolerate Hewitt by the end of the double feature.

Bright Ideas

While not enough has been done to address the balance of tension and release in this recalibrated Layers of Fear, the enhancements to textures and lighting are certainly remarkable. Each story features some truly striking scenes, whether it’s the gloomy shards of moonlight piercing the darkness through windows in the painter’s house from the original, or the seamless shifts from sepia to vivid technicolor during the actor’s haunted jaunt through Layers of Fear 2’s ship. Fine detail can be observed down to the craquelure on the painter’s canvas, and there’s generally a higher level of realism in the world around you. Well, as realistic as a cruise liner that morphs into a hedge maze can be.

Layers of Fear Review Screens

This improved lighting system doesn’t just bring more richness to the environment, either; it has a direct impact on how you interact with it via the new flashlight, which presented me with some stimulating things to do outside of the ongoing cycle of opening doors and rummaging through drawers for scraps of exposition. In the painter’s story its beam can be aimed at ghostly echoes found in your surroundings to reveal hidden objects, while in the actor’s adventure it can be shone onto static mannequins to briefly animate them in order to clear paths by pushing crates or throwing themselves over railings. The latter is a particularly eerie sight to behold, since these dummies move in a stilted, stop-motion style that seems unnervingly unnatural.

More importantly, the flashlight can also be used to stun the stalker enemies occasionally encountered in each of the two main stories. Previously, your only option was to flee these spectral pursuers, inevitably leading to a frustrating instant fail and checkpoint restart if you were too slow to turn on your heels. Now you can buy yourself some breathing space by blasting them with a charged up beam of light, temporarily halting their advances and affording you time to either identify the area’s exit or perhaps quickly search the neighboring rooms for hidden collectables. It massively reduces trial and error, but it also tips the balance of power a bit too far in the player’s direction – the rapidly recharging flashlight makes it surprisingly easy to keep these enemies at bay, making them seem less like inescapable manifestations of psychological grief and more like the hapless goofball ghosts from Luigi’s Mansion.

The rapidly recharging flashlight makes it surprisingly easy to keep these enemies at bay, making them seem less like inescapable manifestations of psychological grief and more like the hapless goofball ghosts from Luigi’s Mansion. 


Additionally, the flashlight can also be used to solve puzzles in certain situations too, serving as a sort of blacklight to reveal hidden messages on walls and floors and the like, but for the most part the puzzles in Layers of Fear are every bit as rudimentary as they were in the original releases. There’s a lot of scrutinizing your surroundings for numbers to input into combination locks or for the directions to dial open a safe, and rarely anything that demands more than a basic amount of brainpower. The only puzzle I struggled to solve was trying to determine why you can crouch in the actor’s chapters but not in the painter’s – it’s as though halfway through Layers of Fear you suddenly remember you have knees.

Writing Wrongs

Tying together the painful plights of the painter and the actor from the previous releases, Layers of Fear introduces the writer’s story, which is weaved in and out of the two main narratives. The unnamed author is holed up in a remote lighthouse writing a book about the painter, but she has her own personal demons to deal with and has to combat similar hallucinated happenings to those inflicted upon the other two main characters. This new side-story doesn’t do anything to elevate the forced-fright formula established elsewhere, but it does serve as solid connective tissue to bridge the two tales together, and provides a tantalizing glimpse at the fate of the series’ main antagonist depending on which ending you arrive at, based on a handful of choices along the way.

In fact there's a heck of a lot of story to sift through in this Layers of Fear including optional mini-campaigns that revolve around the painter’s daughter and wife, so it's a shame that a lot of the freshly recorded dialogue for the countless letters and notes you find is either delivered awkwardly, features grammatical errors, doesn't match up with the text on screen, or is a combination of all of the above. Given how great Candyman’s Tony Todd remains as the booming voice of the director in the actor’s story, it’s disappointing that so many of these new supporting performances aren’t delivered with anywhere near the same amount of command or conviction.

Verdict

Layers of Fear serves up a series of atmospheric and often surreal trips through the shattered psyches of some seriously tortured artists. It’s made all the more eye-catching thanks to Unreal Engine 5, and the addition of the flashlight provides some interesting new ways to both interact with your surroundings and mitigate the frustration of the stalker encounters previously suffered in the original games. However, its sleight of hand scare tactics are still all too clearly telegraphed and this predictable formula grew stale long before I reached the end of each of its main story threads. Ultimately Layers of Fear comes across as a largely scare-free 13-hour crawl through a string of mildly creepy hallways as opposed to a truly terrifying trek into darkness.

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