Layers of Fear 2 (Xbox One Review)
When the original Layers of Fear was released, it was met with a modestly good reception. The concept of a painter’s descent into mania as he wanders half-mad around his home struck a chord with audiences, and critics who praised the style. Although there was a clear debt owed to the much lamented, and now lost, Silent Hills demo PT, Layers of Fear built upon that basic premise with a full game, replete with Bloober’s now signature shifting corridor physics, cathartic horror, and morbidly dark tone.
It only stands to reason that a logical step for the company would be to build on that by taking the concept, and building on it with an expanded scope and more complex idea. In Layers of Fear 2, Bloober have managed to double down on the trappings and style of their first game, expanding on it and creating something that feels much broader in scope. This is presumably in no small part down the success and growth the company have seen due to the success of their previous psychological horror title, and their Cyberpunk follow-up game Observer.
In practical terms, the game is another first person “walking simulator” styled in the form of a haunted house or ghost train, much like the last, albeit with far fewer interactive objects and a lot of locked doors. With various areas built into some form of puzzle to solve. These range from traditional mathematical or pattern puzzles, while the game also tosses in rooms and corridors that shift or require unorthodox approaches to moving around. And lastly there are several chase sequences where the player is harassed by The Formless Man, the game’s main antagonistic force and Jungian manifestation of the main character’s inner turmoil. It’s something of a mixed bag, but the game changes things up constantly throughout the five acts that make up the experience.
In many ways Bloober have set themselves up as the logical stylistic continuation of the aesthetic of the Silent Hill franchise. Not only via the obvious PT connection, but in how the Layers games rely upon the same exploration of the psychological, and use minor ingame actions to effect the eventual outcome achieved. Much like in the first Layers, and it’s DLC Inheritance, seemingly innocuous items and objects can effect the final ending, which itself drastically alters the interpretation of the game’s story. And Layers 2 has endings that will be subject to quite some level of scrutiny and interpretation.
The game is set upon a wonderfully rendered luxury cruise liner in the early 20th century, where a world renowned actor has been tasked to “find the character” of some new film by a wildly eccentric film director. To aid this, much of the ship has been locked off, and dressed for this purpose, which adds a neat explanation for the lack of passengers and crew milling around, and for some of the odd events and items found. It also allows the player to wander through areas of the boat that should by rights be off limits.
But simply being on the cruise ship, brings back memories and repressed childhood trauma, into which the actor must delve deep and exorcise their demons. Thus begins the descent into or indeed out of madness, depending on how you look at it, and the decisions you make. With the director, played to perfection in a cameo voice turn by the excellent Tony Todd, hinting at decisions he wishes you to make and growling philosophically with sneering satisfaction or dismay at the outcomes.
To add into the cinematic theme, the game creators have delved deep into the history of cinema, not only for story choices, but also to add in whole segments of the game which are aesthetically themed around a famous film, or style. The most obvious being an entire section that throws the player into recreations of the murder scenes from the 1997 film Se7en, despite it being clear in-game anachronism. But more widely, this allows for a series of areas that are themed around the works of Georges Méliès, Hitchcock, David Lynch, or the Giallo films of Dario Argento, to count only a handful. It’s through this rich tapestry that Bloober have clearly built this game as a love letter to their favourite films and to the cinematic arts in general, much as they did to a lesser extent to the world of classical painting in Layers of Fear. It’s a neat touch that seems a little gauche at times, but in general endears far more than offends.
It’s a shame then that along with their many strengths, Bloober have managed to bring their weaknesses to Layers of Fear 2 as well as adding a few new ones. Some of the same issues that were present in both Layers of Fear and Observer crop up again in the new game.
The most egregious of which is that some of the segments involving The Formless Man are implemented woefully. At times his appearances are so badly and swiftly telegraphed, and in such small map areas that the player instantly dies, and is forced into a death screen which isn’t overly long but still grates upon repetition. To add to that, these “run for your life” sections, are plagued by the game’s colour palette being fairly often plunged into sepia or black and white, and for the most part is deeply dark and murky, leading to missing seeing where the next turn or corridor will be. As such, The Formless Man soon becomes a tension breaking aggravation, rather than something to be scared of.
It’s a flaw that mainly only pertains to those sequences, but the game does suffer from some instances of poor direction and a lack of clarity as to what is being asked of the player. A similar issue also seemed present during some parts of Observer, which also suffered from some issues during stealth and chase segments. Pointing to an area that the devs clearly need to put some focus into, should they plan to continue these games.
Another key issue in the game comes instead from a misstep of a decision in Act 3, which revolves around the player solving puzzles in the rooms of a variation on the house from the original game. That is in itself no bad thing, in fact the return to this similar house is actually rather fun. The problem arises in the monotonous repetition of a crawl through a cinema gantry, then an air duct and an attic vent, between every one of the puzzle rooms. To make matters worse, this crawl stung me with a loading screen every time, and then hit with a door that refused to open until the game had buffered the next section. Every. Single. Time. This could be an issue that is lessened negated on a high end PC, PS4 Pro or Xbox One X, but on a baseline Xbox one it was clearly present. Indeed the “unopenable unlocked door” issue is one that also plagued Observer, and crops up directly proportionate to how fast you move through Layers of Fear 2.
In all, it’s a worthy successor to the original game, and a fine thematic follow-up. Bloober have shown that they clearly had far from drained the well in making Layers of Fear, and although it suffers from some small issues, it’s a game well worth the attention of anyone who got caught up in the macabre concepts and horrors of the original.
Editors note: Thanks to friend of the site, Graeme, for checking the haunted cupboards we refuse to.