Layers of Fear is a shiny remake with the same dull and slightly uneasy story that plagued the original titles. While it masters elements of a hallucinogenic game with smooth transitions and creative mind-boggling settings, I was never even slightly scared, surprised, or excited.
Too on-the-nose symbolism
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Platform review: PC
Available on: PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC
Release date: June 15, 2023
The lights are off, the curtains are closed, and I’m sitting dangerously close to my monitor. Sorry Mum, when you’re a hardcore horror fan, you can’t worry about square eyes. I’m here to see just how scary the Layers of Fear remake is, and I’m not cutting any corners.
The water in the game is breathtaking. As an early cutscene shows The Writer on her voyage across an unforgiving sea, all I can think is, “that’s some pretty water.” This water remains impressive throughout, and I spent a lot of time staring at toilets and sinks. Unfortunately, the water was the first and last time I felt something in the Layers of Fear remake.
This is by no means a bad thing. The graphics were great in this remake; it was obvious that the developers had a lot of fun playing around with Unreal Engine 5. However, despite the impressive nature of the setting and kaleidoscopic cut scenes, I’m still waiting to be scared hours after playing through the four different campaigns that put me in the shoes of the Musician, Artist, Actor, and Daughter, with the overarching theme of the Writer joining the stories together.
Still waiting for the first fear
I am not a brave person. I wailed through Amnesia: The Bunker never to return, The Outlast Trials’ tutorial made me vomit, and it even took me two hours to play through Resident Evil Village’s 15-minute basement-fetus section. By horror standards, I’m easy pickings. So why doesn’t Layers of Fear scare me?
Layers of Fear seems more like a therapy session with incredible psychedelic settings and transitions than a psychological horror game. Starting out as the Writer gave me no indication that this was a horror game. Despite the weird noises and critically confusing painting of a rat person, there’s no tension building.
Even when I played the main character, the Artist, I found the fear lacking. After walking around the grimy and dreary setting of my former family home with nothing but a lamplight and my shaking breathing, I felt almost no fear. I only sat up in my chair when I first saw my poor, burned wife.
Despite the hurtful words from my artist father, I enjoyed discovering my talent for drawing with crayons while playing as the daughter in her chapter of the story.
Tormented in a previous life by the Artist himself, the wife lived a life of misery that all came to a head when she suffered severe burns in a house fire which pushed her off the edge. The remnants of the Artist’s wife, or what he believes to be her, shadow the character’s every step around the sad old mansion, hunting him down relentlessly. Regrettably, the excitement of seeing something terrifying was short-lived as almost as soon as the wife appeared before me, the Artist whipped out the lamplight and burnt her to a crisp (again).
After that, the monstrous representation of my wife became more like a piece of furniture than a threat. I knew she was around, and occasionally I saw her, but I felt like she was more for show than anything else. The one time she did manage to catch up to me, I thought I entered a cutscene as I slowly fell asleep and woke up at a checkpoint. I’m not a fan of overused jump-scares, but failure here feels low stakes. If the only punishment is a quick nap, it’s hard for players to worry about the scary monsters.
At one point, I even got frustrated at the lazy attempts at scaring me. I’d walk through hallways and have pieces of wall sporadically thrown at me as if Phasmophobia’s Poltergeist was moonlighting in home renovations. Books would silently fall on my head, or the infamous rat-man painting would appear at irregular intervals to remind me that rats are apparently a big deal in this horror game.
This lack of fear was a trend throughout the rest of the chapters, especially when playing as the Wife and Daughter. I was more confused than fearful as I ended up focusing on the numerous letters and paintings I was forced to pick up, instead of whichever beast was chasing me at any given moment.
That’s very letter-al
When playing a horror game with a writer as one of the main characters, you can expect and sometimes forgive a certain amount of artistic flair to the literature in the game. However, Layers of Fear crossed the line from clever to frustrating in the sheer amount of metaphors that were shoved down my throat.
The scariest part of Layers of Fear was walking through the abandoned family home only to find an on-the-nose symbolism around every corner. “Restless dreams” scribbled over a broken bed or chains covering the house when you play as the Wife. This might have been meant to represent the Writer’s creative block, but it was still exhausting
The symbolism and reading weren’t only restricted to the walls. Playing as the Actor, you’ll follow the story through letter after letter after letter as if the Easter rabbit had run out of eggs and was instead reduced to ripping up a diary to scatter around the house. While the voice acting was professional and immersive, stopping every two steps to find more lore, a clue for the next puzzle, or yet another metaphoric phrase forced a sluggish pace.
Despite the lack of fear and an entire high school English class full of clumsy metaphors, Layers of Fear had more than one silver lining. Blooper Team has clearly polished this hallucinogenic experience using UE5, which made a great first impression, with a crisp resolution and dynamic lighting. While there’s more than one eye-watering dark moment where I squinted at my screen, when I could see the setting, I was almost always impressed with its quality and creativity.
With max graphics and ray tracing enabled, performance remained stable, pushing 90 FPS the whole way. This didn’t make the game look that much better, but the transitions from one location to another were so impressive they were disorientating.
Often you would y turn around and, without knowing it, be transported smoothly to another location within the family mansion. This made the linear progression feel like an open-world experience, as I rarely encountered a small box or inconvenient raised ledge that would prevent me from exploring. Layers of Fear grabs your hand and seamlessly leads you through the twisting corridors of the abandoned mansion.
I also found the kaleidoscopic features in the puzzles to be equally as impressive. Whether navigating your way around Inception-like corridors using furniture as dubious walkways to climb up a room turned on its side or lining up empty picture frames to uncover hidden objects, Layers of Fear made full use of its surroundings.
While Layers of Fear won’t be appearing on our best horror games list, if you’re a fan of intricate puzzles and pretty-looking games, it's well worth a try. Just bear in mind if you’re looking for scares, the one thing to be afraid of here is the power of words, whether this be a poorly executed metaphor or a falling book.
The accessibility settings for Layers of Fear are relatively well-rounded and fleshed out with more than just the standard options. There’s the staple of subtitles along with text transcription and an opportunity to change the background and text colour to assist color-blind players. The drag-on button press is also beneficial for those with limited movement or players like myself who can have difficulty getting the direction right. There are enough options to make Layers of Fear enjoyable for most players.
How we reviewed
This playthrough of Layers of Fear took 10.5 hours to complete. There’s a standard of three endings for each character, which more or less boil down to the good, bad, and true endings. However, I only completed one of the endings for each character, except for the Wife, as I completed the good and bad endings out of curiosity.
I also played Layers of Fear on my PC, which has an RTX 3070, and my monitor, which is capable of 166Hz but doesn’t support 4K resolution as it goes up to 1080p. I maxed out all the possible graphics settings, which didn’t affect the performance. I was forced to turn off Motion Blur in settings as I felt extremely nauseous with it on, despite being a comfortable first-person shooter (FPS) player.
Elie is a Features Writer for TechRadar Gaming, here to write about anything new or slightly weird. Before writing for TRG, Elie studied for a Masters at Cardiff University JOMEC in International Journalism and Documentaries – spending their free time filming short docs or editing the gaming section for their student publications.
Elie’s first step into gaming was through Pokémon but they've taken the natural next step in the horror genre. Any and every game that would keep you up at night is on their list to play - despite the fact that one of Elie’s biggest fears is being chased.