Review: Layers of Fear (PS4)

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Title: Layers of Fear
Format: PlayStation Network Download (3.23 GB)
Release Date: February 16, 2016
Publisher: Aspyr
Developer: Bloober Team
Original MSRP: $19.99
ESRB Rating: M
Layers of Fear is also available on Xbox One, PC, Mac, and Linux.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Audio Review:
The audio review (by Josh) for this game is available on Episode 462 of the podcast at 168:03.

Gameplay:
Black screen, male voice telling you some insensitive stuff and then egging you on followed by a quote about painting and expression. A wonderfully obtuse prelude. However, the voice isn’t quite right. It’s not dark enough in tone. It actually sounds like one of the developers did it as a place holder.

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Layers of Fear is described as a “Psychedelic Horror Game” due to the fact that your first-person character is a painter going insane. Maybe. Your experience is therefore filled with insane or even bad-trip-like images and auditory hallucinations. Or are they?

You’re in an old Victorian mansion filled with works of art.

Your goal is to finish painting your Magnum Opus, your most ambitious and important work!

The premise of Layers of Fear reminds me slightly of an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery television show. The episode was called Pickman’s Model and was based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft about an artist obsessed with ghouls who is painting the portrait of a young Victorian woman.

… headphones for a “better experience” …
I saw it as a little kid of only 8 years just three weeks after my father’s death and it sometimes springs to mind as one of the scariest episodes of TV I had ever seen. I know that’s when I saw it because I checked the site here: http://nightgallery.net/night-gallery-episode-guide/ (HEY EDITOR: The episode in question is in Season 2 of the show but all three Seasons are available, you guessed it, on Amazon! Ain’t the internets grand?) (HEY REVIEWER: The Twilight Zone was better :-p)

Right from the start the game suggests using headphones for a “better experience”. I employ and deploy the Sony PlayStation Gold headphones I use during my TGISunday streams. But how do I set them up? I wonder if there is a Layers of Fear pre-set. If there is it may not be available pre-release but since I know I will not finish this review until after the embargo lifts, dear reader, I will let you know. (There is no pre-set so do your wurst.)

For now I will leave them on normal since I have no idea what other game pre-sets might be appropriate. I could do Horror Movie but with no real knowledge of what auditory experience I am in for I just have to play to the lowest common denominator. Look! I said a math word!

The controller functions are simple. I have taken a screenshot to eliminate babbling about it all. You can invert the controls if you like. If you are insane like the character portrayed in the game you may wish to invert the controls just for added difficulty and confusion. You may also like to test if your iron is ready with your tongue. If you do that, please tweet pictures to @psnation. Then go directly to the emergency room and check into the mental ward.

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I have noticed there are a number of games which add an adjustment for, not making this up, “headbob”. I understand what is meant by this. It’s a camera adjustment all about whether you would like to feel, in first person, as though your field of vision is more or less realistic. But… as a human being, when I traverse any expanse of any area, my brain adjusts so that I do not notice “headbob”.

As a matter of actual fact, I do not think ANYONE notices “headbob” apart from one experience in life. That’s due to proximity of a stationary plane in relation to one’s eyes, as they are set in one’s head, moving at some required velocity. During this required motion one’s eyes are typically closed anyway. I find this adjustment ludicrous. Turn off the “headbob”. It’s a game not an intimate encounter. That is my opinion. As is everything you are reading now.

… in this tube-like hallway …
What is it with first person games and reticles? Is it that difficult to find the middle of the TV? Luckily there is a crosshairs option to remove it. I suggest you do that and remove it to help your immersion. If something in your field of view is important an icon will appear anyway so doff thy reticle, as Juliet might say if she hadn’t killed herself and if she were alive today!

Why am I here in this foyer? The same question could be asked of The Witness. WHY am I here in this tube-like hallway? Sometimes there are answers. Sometimes the answer is “Because the game hadda start somewheres! Shut-up and play already!”

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From the first little examination of the surroundings one gets the idea that something may be amiss. A letter from an exterminator of rodents is a good sign that maybe something is wrong with your perception. As Karl says in an early scene from The Exorcist, “No rats!”

The indicators of which action to take are terrific. You see a hand icon and it plainly tells you to grab something but it shows it in an obvious but plain way remarkably unique to this game. I’m surprised we haven’t seen it exactly like this before but now that it’s in the wild it’ll likely be everywhere. When it is, you can thank Bloober Team for the improvement to games everywhere. An astounding achievement indeed from devs who birthed Basement Crawl.

There is a problem, however. I experienced an issue when I thought I was targeting something in a drawer but the actual target was the cabinet below. I guess you’d call this clipping but it’s troublesome in that it’s not just happening visually with two objects intersecting but with targeting. It’s not a game breaker but it is worrisome. Thanks, Unity Engine!

… the center of the screen …
Controls are not motion controls but they are almost as intuitive. Sure, guides pop up on the screen explaining in images what to do but executing them feels natural. And having the reticle off helps with immersion. As I have said before in more than this review, the center of the screen is the center of the screen. Reticles only add distance, a fourth wall, to the experience. Turn that off.

There is another trope I have found in some of these games, like Until Dawn and Life Is Strange, where you pick-up a handwritten or even TYPED letter which is plainly readable but they insist upon imposing a script over it in bright white lettering to make SURE you can read it. Developers should STOP THAT! It, like the reticle, puts a distance between player and game. Brecht.

A word about Bertolt Brecht. Brecht recognized a type of Chinese theater in 1936 which he termed The Theater of Alienation. He often employed similar techniques in his plays and productions which were produced in such a way, he felt, to remove empathy from audience members. He thought he could show a very emotional story but by subverting the story in theatrical ways, the audience would coldly judge the proceeding sans emotions. He failed spectacularly but he did create an oddity and a unique way of telling stories. The more you know.

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The opening few minutes are fine. You traverse a small bit of the house until… A SOUND TO MY LEFT! Suddenly my whole person is covered in goosebumps. I am not sure whether exploring the kitchen and dining areas is building tension inasmuch as it makes everything seem more or less fine. Normal.

As the title of the game isn’t “A Stroll Through The Victorian Mansion: Relaxation Techniques from Long Ago” but rather LAYERS OF FEAR, I don’t know if the surroundings set me up to be on edge or if it’s the title. I think it’s the title. And the fact everything seemed fine, Lah-Dee-daahhh.

This game is filled to the tipping point with items to observe so do not play in a hurry. You’ll miss some interesting stuff. Things which may appear to be perfectly ordinary are maybe not-so-much. Also trophies. Also the game is on rails which include puzzles at some points and trying a speed run is just counter-productive and counter-intuitive in the framework set-forth by the devs. Shorthand: Don’t rush cause it don’t work Besides it’s not a very long game anyway.

… goosebumps inducing …
There is one painting on the stairs which is iconic and was brought to life by film director Ken Russell in his film GOTHIC. (HEY EDITOR: I KNOW I am running you ragged with this review but Ken Russell is one of my favorite directors and I BET you can find Gothic on Amazon. He also directed The Who’s Tommy!Editor, can you hear me? Also, I apologize for having such an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of random stuff. And tubas.) (HEY REVIEWER: …damn tubas)

Even the smallest things that happen in this house, because you are alone, are goosebumps inducing! Like what JUST happened and a few minutes later I said aloud to know one, “Wow… that’s effing awesome.” But I didn’t say “effing”. I said “Giraffing”. No, I didn’t.

Creepy. This game is so creepy. Gasp-inducingly creepy. It reminds me a bit of the Resident Evil franchise in that you’re in a big house with a lot of closed doors and you never know what’s on the other side until you open them. A bit like a jack-in-the-box too. You have to turn that handle even though you know at some point you’re likely to get a surprise! What’s worse here is that you don’t even have to turn the handle. Sometimes it is silently turning itself.

As far as saving is concerned, at the end of each section of the game you return to the artist’s workroom. There is a kind of Life Is Strange looking eye of the storm icon which turns at the bottom right of the screen. if you have not reached this point your play has not been saved. Word to the wise.

TROPHIES:
This is an element about which I rarely comment. We play games for the experience and not the intangible, digital rewards. However it may be worth noting that Layers of Fear offers no Platinum trophy. Such a shame. With the myriad opportunities for collecting artifacts and with the very many interactions with the environment in the game Bloober Team could have certainly added enough trophies to make the Platinum worthwhile.

Of all the questions I could think of to ask the devs, the question about NO PLAT comes to the fore. “Why not?” There are four silvers and a gold along with two hidden trophies after several bronze. The reason I am so interested in the reasoning behind this “No Platinum” trophy is simple and requires little explanation. “The Walking Dead: Season One”. You just have to PLAY it and bang: PLAT.

You play Layers of Fear and: SPLAT no PLAT. How is THAT?! (HEY EDITOR: I have been obsessed with the musical HAMILTON for some time now. Lots of amazing rap and the show recently performed live on The Grammys where it won every award. Even best Female Country Performance! OK. Busted. I made that up. But if anyone wants to buy the Original Cast Recording
….. since it’s the hottest of the hot, WHAT?!) (HEY REVIEWER: They made a Broadway musical about the life of GEORGE HAMILTON?? I mean, sure, we were all fascinated by the perpetual tan, but come on.)

… I may not know ANYTHING …
Visuals:
When you make a video game in this day and age, of 1080p bickering, which is about art, specifically a painter, you better deliver the visuals. Layers of Fear is gorgeous in a number of ways. Unfortunately when we’re talking about reviewing a game and not just playing it, the game is held to a standard apart from some guy downloading it and playing.

There are frame rate dips. Oh, is THAT the horror? Not at all. The game is not ruined by the dips in frame rate although these dips do beg the question, “WHY?!” It’s a walking simulator through a finite area. It’s not an open world about which we are discussing. The only solution I can come to is that Unity Engine, as attractive as it may have seemed in the beginning, has not kept up with demands.

Unity needs a massive upgrade to keep-up with current gen expectations! Also it should be noted I have never built a video game so I may not know ANYTHING about which I am writing. At least I know when I don’t really know. A caveat.

There is so much to screengrab, I think I just made a verb, but I don’t want to give too much away! Just know that “you will see such sights”, to paraphrase Pinhead. And as a matter of fact I added about forty screenshots to this review.

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Audio:
I used the headphones for a while and the sound did not disappoint. Thing is, if you use the headphones you’ll miss some other surprises which are also unsettling! Do not feel beholden to that instruction. Good news indeed for anyone without a nice set of headphones!

The opening theme is gorgeous and reminiscent of the same type of music you might get in a Night Gallery episode during the credits. Maybe even the theme from Bad Ronald, another TV reference from the 1970s. You get simple piano, chimes, bells and a single alto humming-vocal which is wordless but insistent. Then come the strings and “ahs” from our alto expand the theme. It’s wonderful. (HEY EDITOR: Here I go again! Bad Ronald, a TV movie from 1974 about a teenage boy who accidentally kills a bratty little girl and whose mother walls him up inside their house, is rare but also available on Amazon! I think you would love it!) (HEY REVIEWER: Sounds like a party)

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

… a big fun factor here …
Conclusion:
I am often squeamish and sometimes even depressed a bit by horror games. The difference with Layers of Fear is that I understand the gothic nature of the storytelling. This game isn’t about gore for gore’s sake nor is it about yet more damned zombies. To skate around the edges of pun and irony, this game offers truly artistic visions of what a good atmospheric mystery game can be. Certainly Among The Sleep shares its DNA if not its specifics.

This is not P.T. nor could it have been “inspired” by P.T. To say or imply that is to rob the developers of their very hard work and extremely clever designs. And FYI, that timeline doesn’t add-up either. It’s nonsensicle.

There is a big fun factor here that is sometimes missing from other horror games. Horror games should be fun. Fun is simple. Fun is simplicity! The horror genre doesn’t need to be filled with disgusting images.

The most classic horror films, not slasher genre mind you, are psychological and timeless. Watch Rosemary’s Baby. Even the most graphic images in the film are due to nudity. Not gore. It is the IMPLICATION OF EVIL which makes that film timeless.

The Exorcist, though graphic in moments, still gets its true horror from the ideas in the plot and not from its one blood spattered scene. I argue that the crucifix scene is and always will be shocking but also is, and always will be, unnecessary to the plot. It’s merely one instance of story which is already told in all the other elements of the story. That scene was shock for the sake of shock. Rosemary’s Baby didn’t need anything like that and it achieved the same zeitgeist in its day.

Layers of Fear is the Rosemary’s Baby of our current generation of horror games. Thoughtful and interested in the underlying psychology of its tale.

Score:
8.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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