With the right aesthetics and style, a game, or any piece of media for that matter, can get away with a lot of other shortcomings. Asura’s Wrath, a game constructed almost entirely of quick, on-screen button prompts and shallow combat, is remembered fondly for its outrageous story and epic battles. Meanwhile, some of my favorite games are simple rail shooters like Rez and Panzer Dragoon, which focus entirely on the interplay between visuals, audio, and pacing to create magical moments. On the horror side of the spectrum, P.T. became notorious for getting under players’ skins with little more than a single, creepy hallway.
It’s that last example that Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear series seeks to capture, and, just like all those aforementioned examples, its successes come entirely through style, visuals, and audio. But while Layers of Fear 2 rides high on evocative imagery and psychological horror, it stumbles in an attempt to provide more substance.
You play as an actor aboard a cruise ship helmed by a famous director (voiced by Tony Todd). Notes left around the environment suggest you’re supposed to “find your role”, become a character, and peel away the layers of personality required to inhabit someone else. Before long, that premise gets a bit lost in a surreal maze of shifting hallways and doors. Like the first game (and P.T. before it), the real point is to move through the linear environment and see how many tricks the developers have up their sleeves to confuse, unnerve, and scare you.
There’s a story there, sure, but it’s revealed in such an opaque manner—through multiple playthroughs and endings—that I found it hard to get much meaning out of it. Really, it’s the immediate movement through the environment that’s the star.
If the transition of Silent Hill from a foggy town into a rusty, chain-link hellscape makes you equal parts excited and horrified, then you’ll find a lot of love in Layers of Fear 2. The game is set on a cruise ship, but there are really no rules. One moment you’re opening bulkhead doors, and the next you’re navigating a crowd of mannequins while a trio of stark apartment buildings loom overhead.
That playfulness in the level design made me nostalgic for some of my favorite horror games of the past. If you ever thought that games were creepier in the early days of polygonal graphics, when environments were more abstract and strange, then I’m right there with you. Doom and Quake still have cooler horror aesthetics than a lot of modern games. And it might be a deep cut, but I still think back to some of the massive, hellish mazes of Shadowman on the Dreamcast.
Layers of Fear 2 seems to understand the power of level design that those older games were built upon. Toss in some very David Lynch/Twin Peaks-esque touches, and the end result is a game that was extremely my jam for many hours.
It’s a shame then that I find it really difficult to give this game my full endorsement. As much as some of the psychological horror moments will stick with me, it’s the terrible, punishing, trial-and-error chase sequences that I’ll probably remember most.
Sequences where the game can kill you may only happen once or twice per chapter, but they are almost all incredibly unpleasant and unfun. In nearly every sequence like this I’d be skulking along, waiting for the next scare, when a monster would appear and flash an obnoxious, Slenderman-esque “Game Over” sequence in my face. From there I’d have to figure out how to avoid death—often dying a few more times along the way—before finally getting back to the enjoyable exploration.
That this game has fail states at all seems entirely unnecessary. Especially in a post-Slenderman, post-Five Nights At Freddy’s world where you can’t browse Steam without tripping over twenty horror games exactly like this, it would have been a welcome breath of fresh air if this game avoided “Game Over” screens entirely.
Still, while those sequences are a chore, there are enough hours of tense exploration in-between to make the journey worthwhile. Not every sequence works, and Bloober Team has a tendency to go for the jump-scare when they should show restraint, but even still, I was ultimately glad I played through it.
I could divide my favorite games into two piles. In one pile, I’d have the dense, intricate, and fulfilling games like Dark Souls and Resident Evil. In the other pile, I’d have the shallow-as-a-puddle, aesthetically brilliant games like the aforementioned Rez and Panzer Dragoon. Layers of Fear 2, by refusing to settle into either of those piles, failed to earn a place among my favorite games. It definitely has its moments, though.