When a game takes aim at some of the heaviest of emotional torments, it’s always a tricky scenario on whether these matters will hit or miss. Insanity, depression, obsession, and fear can take on a myriad of forms within in a game, but proper conveyance in order to draw the player in and make these tones worth exploring is another task altogether. Layers of Fear is the kind of game that opens itself just enough to make players curious to see the whole picture. It teases clues to drive the player deeper and deeper into unraveling its disturbing mystery and despite its utterly macabre feel, it does a good job of getting us to see what new and dreadful thing was behind the next door.

Layers of Fear comes from indie developer Bloober Team and tells the story of a painter. What we learn of our protagonist in the first moments is that he lives alone in a large mansion, had a wife who was a successful musician, and had a daughter and dog as well. All of these beings are mysteriously absent from the unnervingly quiet house. We also learn that our painter is working on a new painting with which he is, in no small degree, obsessed. These simple beginnings give way to a descent in which players join our painter in a journey through the psychological hellscape of his own life, depression, and obsession in order to gain the unconventional tools he’ll need to finish his magnum opus, utterly convinced that it will make everything right and good again.

Bloober Team

Players traverse the environment observing and interacting with different scenarios. There are objects and can be found, picked up and investigated, exposing the story in the form of readable text in old letters, newspaper clippings and the like or through vocal flashbacks offering a glimpse into memories of the protagonist or other significant characters. Players interact with all objects including picking up things, opening doors or interacting with puzzles through one button and another button which exits from zoomed-in views of picked up objects. Other than that, a majority of the game’s progression relies upon the player looking at specific environmental triggers which will progress events of the game. It’s extremely minimalist, but for the type of game Layers of Fear is, it works very well.

Speaking of environmental triggers, the game’s design is certainly of note. Layers of Fear is a psychological terror fest. It relies heavily upon taking a normal environment and twisting it seamlessly into something more and more disturbing. Paintings become grotesque alternates of their original forms, hallways appear where there was once a wall, and words appear in conveyance of the painter’s devolving mind and insecurities. The game revels in playing tricks upon you as you continue to stumble through the labyrinthine nightmare.

Bloober Team

Layers of Fear is separated into six chapters, each of which sets the player on a different psychological journey which explores a facet of the painter’s degradation and ultimately grants him a new tool needed to complete the magnum opus. It’s not just a series of scares, but rather each chapter presents its own thematic imagery and feel as they all build upon the overall tale of the painter’s family. One explores an accident that occurred and weaves disturbingly symbolic episodes around the nature of that accident, whereas another explores the estranged nature of the relationship between the painter and his daughter and haunts the player with appropriately distorted scenarios based around the world of a child.

The sound in the game is absolutely effective for the most part. You hear your own steps upon different surfaces and occasionally you’ll find yourself stopping to listen and look around because of one noise or another. Sounds in the distance, sudden music (distorted or otherwise), the despairing sobbing of a woman or child and growing whisperings in your ears build a disturbing ambience which will keep the player on edge more often than not. The only notable exceptions where the sounds hit a misstep are when you move from a room, cutting certain sounds in an almost abrupt fashion in order to prepare for the atmosphere of the next scenario. It’s not something that occurs often, but when it does, it feels out of place and somewhat off-putting to the overall feel of the game.

Bloober Team

Layers of Fear is effective in its ability to twist imagery and build a gruesome tale out of symbolism, but the true understanding of what is going on in the story relies somewhat heavily upon an almost impeccable attention to detail in exploration. Almost every cabinet, desk and other such furniture has drawers and cupboards which can be tugged open and occasionally contain objects such as letters, clippings, items or drawings which play a part in piecing together the story. The imagery and events of the game do some part in telling what is going on, but a large chunk of the story would simply be missing without careful exploration of every nook and cranny. It’s possible to go to the end of Layers of Fear without exploring much of it, but it would only serve to make things feel confusing and incomplete. Even then, the amount of searching it takes to find every interactive piece in the game feels somewhat absurd.

Bloober Team painted a picture in Layers of Fear that will leave a player grasping at possibilities and reasons for the things they see and hear. The story feels on par with the works of Edgar Allen Poe in its abilities to bend fantastical and grotesque imagery into the expression of a natural human tragedy. There are the occasional missteps that hurt the overall feel of the game and its demand of exploration seem slightly at odds with the natural conveyance of a horror story. These marks are not nearly enough to pull away from what is mostly a competently told psychological journey. Layers of Fear lives up to its title in delivering a layered experience of fright, immersion and mystery.

This review was completed using a download of Layers of Fear for PC.