As a Virgo, this author is all too familiar with the perils of perfectionism. Layers of Fear is a brilliant, brief psychological thriller which asks one very poignant question: how far is too far? Heavily inspired by Oscar Wilde's iconic turn-of-the-century novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, this meticulously designed vignette puts you inside the twisted mind of an artist, who's torturously attempting to complete his magnum opus while the real-world crumbles around him. It's really rather good.
But it's not beyond criticism. The game, a kind of redemption piece for Basement Crawl developer Bloober Team, wears its influences a little too patently on its pallet – and it feels like a megamix of nightmarish influences as a result. There's the abovementioned Oscar Wilde inspiration, of course, but the game also owes an enormous amount to Hideo Kojima's short-lived Silent Hills sampler P.T., as well as Gone Home and practically every horror movie in existence.
The game's strength, though, is pulling all of these stimuli together and sewing them into a barmy, breathless five hour short which makes no sense and total sense all at the same time. It's a title in which you do very little – walking from room-to-room, opening drawers and cupboard doors is the extent of the interactivity here – but it's incredibly inventive, finding new ways to trick you and teach you a little more about the protagonist's schizophrenic state of mind.
The release may be rudimentary when it comes to the moment-to-moment gameplay, but it uses the medium impressively: room layouts contort as you move the camera around, environmental details deliver key narrative accoutrements, and the title does a brilliant job of toying with your expectations to create tension. You never truly feel safe, which is the hardest thing to achieve in a horror game – and it's particularly well executed here, seeing as you can't actually die.
Considering the game has a bit more girth to it than the bite-sized P.T., we were waiting for the developer to run out of ideas, but while it does repurpose practically every cliché from the horror playbook, it subverts them just enough to feel fresh. Some scares are understandably more impactful than others, and a handful are downright cheap, but the release rarely recycles its concepts, opting to introduce new ones with dizzying regularity.
That's not to say that you'll be visiting different locations: all of the events take place within the confines of a Victorian house. But the title takes this budgetary concession and leverages it to its advantage, allowing you to familiarise yourself with the layout of rooms, before flipping them on their head – sometimes quite literally. The restricted scope means that a painful amount of care and attention has been poured into each and every asset – it looks sublime.
Again, it's not without its problems, though. Running on the Unity engine means that it suffers from many of the same framerate issues that we mentioned in our Firewatch review, though trading the Wyoming wilderness for tight little corridors means that the performance problems aren't quite as pronounced. There are some aliasing issues, too, but other visual ailments – like the overuse of chromatic aberration – appear to be down to stylistic choice.
The sound, similarly, is worthy of mention, with creaky floorboards, squeaky doors, and all of the other sound effects that you'd expect. One nice touch here is that the protagonist walks with a kind of lop-sided gait – the result of some form of leg injury or medical issue – and this is both reflected in the cadence of his footsteps and the unorthodox way in which the camera bobs. It's an unusual but powerful effect, and something that we've never seen in a first-person game before.
The one major downside is that the voice acting is a bit wooden; you'll happen upon sequences where the protagonist will candidly consider his objectives, but the stiff performances don't quite capture his deranged state of mind. Moreover, we found many of the notes and letters that you happen upon around the house to be a little bland. Considering the Oscar Wilde influences running throughout the release, it needed some writing with a bit more grandeur. Instead, what you get is more Goosebumps than Bram Stoker.
Don't let that take anything away from the title, though – it's extremely effective at what it sets out to do. If you're yet to be convinced by the so-called walking simulator, then you're going to find the elementary interactivity a bit of a speed bump – after all, there are only the most rudimentary of Resident Evil-esque puzzles here. But what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in atmosphere, and an almost relentless spate of jump scares.
Layers of Fear isn't shy about its influences, but if you were impressed by the P.T. demo, then how do you fancy five or so hours more? This is a tidily presented, tantalisingly tense trip through a fractured psyche – it's dark, desperate, and depraved. Bloober Team hasn't concocted the most original slice of horror in history, but it has pulled its inspirations together shrewdly – and the results are both repulsive and rousing.