There is no shortage of horror video games on the market, from classic franchises like Silent Hill to more recent entries like the Five Nights at Freddy’s games. Most of the spooky ones you’re likely to come across drop you into a scary setting, where you’re left to fend for yourself against some sort of horrible creature that’s out to get you. Atmosphere certainly plays an important role in all these games, but it’s not as common to encounter a game that rests entirely on its atmosphere without ghoulies chasing you around and threatening your very life.
Layers of Fear is a horror game that eschews those ghoulies altogether, opting instead to unsettle you with gameplay based solely around exploration with no combat or survival elements at all. Created by Polish developer Bloober Team, Layers of Fear landed first on Steam as an Early Access game in 2015 and now has made its way to consoles.
The game drops you into the role of an artist who very clearly is struggling with some pretty serious issues. You don’t know anything about this person at the beginning of the game, and you’re placed in the entry of his house without any instruction or guidance. From that point you’ll start exploring the house by roaming through the rooms, opening up doors, and poking around in closets and cupboards. Along the way you’ll stumble across tidbits of information in the form of letters, items that trigger memory voiceovers, and newspaper clippings. There never is a big infodump where you learn everything about the story. It all comes together slowly and gradually over the course of the game, and the more pieces of information you uncover, the clearer a picture you’ll end up with regarding what’s actually going on. Of course, it’s possible for you to just mainline the game and ignore all the drawers and chests that might hold hints about the deeper story. If you do that, you’ll still have a general idea of the narrative, but I’d imagine you’ll miss out on some of the nuances and details that give the game some extra… wait for it… layers of fear.
As you wander through the house that is the centerpiece of the game, you’ll start to notice that the place becomes weirder and weirder. Doors you just passed through no longer lead back to the same room you just left, and sometimes you might catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of your eye, only to see nothing suspicious when you turn to look at it straight-on. Eventually the very reality of the room you’re currently in might shift as you turn away from one wall and then turn back to it, only to find that it’s now a rambling hallway. Or… was it always a hallway?
Your character’s descent into a psychedelic insanity is punctuated by some truly chilling occurrences that turn otherwise ordinary rooms into nightmarish set pieces. Actual masterpieces of art from Rembrandt, Van Eyck, and other legendary painters are your constant companions. You’ll never be quite sure what you’re going to find behind that next door or even in that very room when you turn around. Layers of Fear is an extremely effective haunted house simulator, and the game creates its spooky atmosphere of dread so effectively that you’ll be on edge for most of the two to three hours it’ll probably take you to finish a playthrough.
If you’re into psychological horror and playing detective to piece together weird narratives, Layers of Fear is a game you won’t want to miss.