Game review: Layers of Fear; Horror by Numbers

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A beautiful idea with some inspired realisation, undermined by an overuse of jump scares and distracting unity physics.

For a long time, I’ve been looking for a good horror game without cheap jump scares. I have anxiety problems so jump scares really mar my enjoyment of an experience. I like psychological horror, cosmic horror, essentially all aspects of the genre except for cheap scares. I want to find a game that I can allow myself to be immersed in enough to really creep me out safe in the knowledge that I’m not going to be jumping out of my skin for no good reason. This could so easily have been that game. Most of the game is a journey through a dreamlike state. Disturbing and repetitive imagery and an environment pieced together from memories and nightmares is absolutely suitable for this and in theory gives exactly the right atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the extent to which objects are repeated is distracting. There is exceptional environmental design on the part of the developers, though this is most evident in the backgrounds. Much of the time it is painfully obvious that room designs created by dragging, dropping, copying and pasting from the same small pool of items (though there are exceptions to this, particularly when the player enters damaged environments). The paintings themselves are excellent, and many are deliciously creepy or strange, but a greater variety would have been nice, particularly in the incidental pieces. The repetition is very conspicuous.

The voice acting is a bit of a letdown. The main character is voiced in the English version by ‘generic American guy’, who doesn’t do a bad job but fails to add to the atmosphere of the game. I do think they could have chosen an older, more dramatic voice actor to really give the character some life, particularly since he is not a particularly sympathetic figure.

The themes of the game are used wonderfully in its design, succeeding in making art supplies genuinely unnerving. The story that unfolds is disturbing as it should be and even quite original.

Sadly, the game sometimes returns to tired horror tropes that are very often unrelated to the main themes or backstory. I don’t want to give away too much, but for example this game makes use of creepy broken dolls, the likes of which even a non-horror fan has seen a million times before. They’re symbolic of a story element, but there’s no good reason for this symbolism when presenting stark realities would have been so much more chilling. Most of the best moments involve the paintings themselves and the art department has outdone themselves in how paint is used in this game.

The worst aspects of the game are the environmental interactions. For some reason the developer decided to have grab-and-move controls for everything, where point-and-click would have served so much better. As it is, performing simple actions can be very fiddly. Opening chests is particularly awkward, and I usually had each one fall closed on me a couple of times before I managed to drag it open. Counter-intuitively, these interactions really break immersion, and in a game without any real ‘action’ component, they’re completely unnecessary. Perhaps this choice was made to make the game more suitable for a future conversion to VR.

It seemed during my play-through that there were other possible paths, and I have since learnt that there are three different endings available depending on how you choose to act in the game. There is some replay value to this, though I would leave a while before doing so as playing this knowing what is going to happen and when would be a bit less interesting. It should be noted that although you can ‘die’ in the game, this does not send you back at all. If anything it makes you skip forward a little. Punishing the player by making them miss out on little bits of the game in this way is actually very clever and contributes further to replay value and the sense of danger that hazards bring to proceedings.

There is a second adventure available as DLC. Called ‘Inheritance’ it puts you in the shoes of the daughter of the protagonist of the main game. It’s a worthwhile addition if you enjoyed your experience.

I really enjoy this game and although I have my criticisms, my opinion of it is definitely positive. Despite a few uninspired choices, it brings fresh elements to the realm of horror and does so with great skill. It will keep surprising you throughout, which really is the mark of a great horror game. If it was remade with a much larger budget someday it could be a genuine classic, and with the right people behind it could even be the inspiration for a movie. The originality it could bring to such a project would be very welcome.

Featured image: Game poster.

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