Bloober Team is a studio that knows a thing or two about the spectrum of opinion. After launching its 2016 hit Layers of Fear, the Polish developer fell well wide of the mark a year later with its own version of cyberpunk. We didn’t take to Observer in the slightest, but fast-track two years and the team is returning to what put it on the map. Layers of Fear 2 is a grander and more boisterous sequel, hampered only somewhat by its lack of genuine scares.
A reductionist would label the experience a walking simulator, but there really isn’t much more to this trip aboard a ghost ship than that. Spread across five different acts, you’ll explore numerous linear environments both within reality and outside of it, interacting with doors and objects via the R2 button along the way. There’s nothing complex about it -- puzzle solutions are simple and you’ll rarely get lost during exploration -- but that’s because it’s more about what’s going on around you than anything else.
The original title was famed for the way it shape-shifted its environments at a moment’s notice, occasionally flipping the contents of an entire room on its head, and much of the same can be said of its follow-up. The game makes a point of playing about with your expectations, subverting them on every occasion to keep you on your toes. Some doors can only be viewed and accessed from certain angles, mannequins will twist and contort just out of eyeshot, while your whole perspective can be turned upside-down in the space of a second. It’s really quite impressive to witness in action, and it's the factor that continues to differentiate a Bloober Team product from anything else on the market.
Matching that is the exceptional, foreboding atmosphere that’ll have you hooked from beginning to end. From the haunting audio cues that bubble and froth in the background, crescendoing at the heights of scares, to the bloodstained visuals that could haunt many a nightmare, Layers of Fear 2 is an intense riot. With the foundations firmly in place, the potential for frights is at an all-time high.
Except, they never really materialize. There are the odd couple of cheap jump scares, but the game fails to capitalise on its promising setup in any meaningful way. You’ll never second guess yourself about opening a dreaded door, fearful of what’s on the other side, because despite the tension that builds as you reach for the door handle, you already know it’s all going to be in vain. A ghostly spirit may catch you off-guard every so often, but the experience is far too tame for our liking. It’s very much style over substance when it comes to things that go bump in the night.
One minor gameplay addition over its precursor draws inspiration from the likes of Outlast and SOMA. Every so often, a grotesque deformed monster will spawn and give chase, prompting multiple 30 second speedy getaways that need to be picture perfect if you want to survive the ordeal. They add absolutely nothing to the title other than frustration. Trial and error is the name of the game during these scenes thanks to gimmicky solutions that aren’t easily telegraphed, leading to annoyance rather than satisfaction.
These grievances can be alleviated by the soothing tones of the small hub area you return to between chapters, but don’t expect it to be a revolution for gameplay. The title never breaks from that familiar format of walking, interacting, and learning. Outside of four key decisions that change the direction of the story, you’re just there for the ride.
Speaking of which, the narrative itself is vague at even the best of times. You play the role of a famed actor who has been invited to the set of a crazed director on a luxurious ship, but it’s not long before things start to go pear-shaped. Your tale quickly becomes wrapped up with the stories of the vessel’s former inhabitants -- two children in particular who pretended to be pirates during their time aboard.
It’s a depressing tale, told through speech and internal monologues as you pick up and examine objects that relate to the events unfolding. Things start to get hazy once you consider your place and purpose in the plot, however. Narrator Tony Todd, best known for his work on Candyman, does a magnificent job of creating tension and setting certain narrative beats up, but we continued to struggle nailing a lot of concrete information down.
Maybe it’s because we concluded our playthrough with a poor ending, of which there are three. Seven hours is enough to see credits roll, but with a handful of collectibles to uncover that shed further light on what happened to the crew, there’s enough of an incentive for a second attempt at things.
One small nitpick of its predecessor was that slight performance issues, as a result of the Unity engine, hindered the experience ever so slightly -- but Unreal Engine 4 takes the reigns this time around to create some truly spectacular visuals. Every environment and object has a real shine to it, as if the ship’s butler had been there a matter of seconds ago keeping things in shape.
That is until the game shifts art styles in time with its eerie atmospheric transitions. A black and white filter populates one or two sequences, while your entire perspective can enlarge or dramatically shrink out of nowhere. References to classic horror films can even be found within its designs -- The Shining and Nosferatu just to name a few. It’s all incredibly impressive, creating a title that looks and runs like a dream on PS4 Pro.
Layers of Fear 2 falls short in one too many areas for us to consider it a classic, but the experience that remains is still well worth your time. Predictable horror conventions aside, spectacular visuals, a haunting atmosphere, and impressive shape-shifting environments are sure to keep you up at night.