October means horror games, and it doesn’t matter how much I love horror, I really have no stomach for horror games, I’d play Amnesia in twenty minute chunks, Little Nightmares gives me the shivers, and I’m stuck on Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder… but it’s also very creepy so I’m glad I’m stuck.
But when I tell you that I have just finished Layers of Fear, don’t think that it just didn’t grip me as much as other horror games, it certainly had me on edge, but I found that I was taken in by the narrative that was unwinding as I stumbled through rooms and corridors, and the difficulty was moderate enough that I could get through a single playthrough with a minimum of effort, but to play again will prove a lot harder.
Let’s break this down:
Amnesia is something of a cheap trick so far as backstory goes, but done well it can form the basis of a fantastic character narrative. Layers of Fear begins with a nameless man awakening in a home that you can safely assume is your own, and limping room to room without direction to try and uncover what is going on, and in the absence of anyone to talk to, you are left to read and explore in the hope that it may trigger some memories. And then you find the studio, an easel stands with it’s back to you in a room lightly furnished with a small stage, a few leather-bound storage trunks, and a set of locked cabinets.
When you pull the cloth covering the canvas, the game begins in earnest. You are confronted by a masterpiece that has not even begun, the greatest nemesis a creator can face, a rectangle of plain white.
When you leave the studio you begin to limp around a warped facsimile of the house you just left, a dream-like manifestation of everything you have repressed, and you have been a terrible person. To say that the story and visuals are evocative of Lovecraft would be an understatement, although it may be truer to say that it draws more deeply on Edgar Allen Poe. An artist seems to lose his muse and is driven mad by his own failure, and lashes out at those closest to him in the worst possible ways.
Nothing wrong with a few clichés here and there so long as you mix it in with something original. Short version, well done Bloober Team for the effort, and maybe it’s just that I’ve studied horror for so long that I can spot the classics from a long way away. You’re frequently mazed, at times as part of a puzzle; lots of vanishing doors that hold you until you’ve been suitably spooked; more jump scares than you can defensively shake a stick at. Use of crying, both of a woman and a child, graffiti on the walls, rats and creaking floorboards, all been done, but does it work? Obviously, they’re clichéd because they work.
Above all, the most pervasive and subtle feature of Layers of Fear is the most unnerving. We discover early on that our protagonist* has a limp and a prosthetic leg, the beginning of his downward spiral that led to all this. The floorboards make for loud footsteps, and the irregular pacing is strongly reminiscent of a heartbeat – which of course makes sprinting a far more intense experience, and the subtle change in speed with every step makes you increasingly uncomfortable, even after a few hours of gameplay.
The uniformity of the building’s architecture should make you comfortable in certain spaces, to then build discomfort by changing it, warping it or repeating it, but I for one am not sure how well it worked. With that said, there are other artistic choices that I found myself adoring, such as the walls made of chairs, the invading black paint, and the use of childish scrawling. I was more than drawn in, and pulled along by the growing intensity.
I mentioned before an intention to play Layers of Fear again. I don’t think I’ve ever replayed a game I’ve completed (not a long list there) but I’d be tempted to start again from the beginning. There were so many little things I missed, doors not taken, puzzles unsolved, and I suspect more than a few details overlooked. So many paths are locked to you the moment a decision is made that you feel that you’re cutting off more possibilities than may even exist. It’s a simple enough thing to get from beginning to end, but not without feeling like there is more left to know.
Controls can be a little awkward, motion is required to move objects, so one must drag doors open, physically turn cranks and levers, and turn pages. Not usually a problem, it can make a game more engaging once you’re accustomed to it, but more often than not it simply becomes a frustration that one should be able to turn off, not least of which because the cursor snaps to objects with which you can interact, which led to a frustrating few minutes of opening and closing the same drawer just to read a newspaper clipping.
Never the less, there is a DLC for me to tuck into next, and a very recent title from Bloober, >Observer that plays to a lot of themes that appeal to me. Someone at Bloober Team SA clearly has taste, and they make a pretty good game too.
*Protagonist seems a misnomer in this case. Is there a word for a villain upon whom the story is focused?