It’s no secret that film and the status of celebrity can do something to a person. There have been plenty of books and films on the topic, not to mention the actual examples that we see like clockwork in real life. Layers of Fear 2, to some extent, explores the toll of such a life on an already conflicted and disturbed individual, taking pages from a variety of sources, everything from Sunset Boulevard to Psycho.
So! Let’s start. You play as a character whose identity is more or less a mystery; you don’t even see their hands until the last ten minutes of the game, when it gives a big clue to your character’s “deal.” (If you haven’t guessed it by then; they do drop subtle clues and the observant player will probably figure out what is going on by then.)
The controls are a little odd. They feel awkward at first, using your buttons and joysticks in what feels like an attempt to imitate real-life movements. For example, using a combination lock requires you to sort of rotate one of your joysticks. Although I can appreciate this attempt at trying something different, it feels strange more than anything else, rather than a natural movement. Eventually, I got used to these controls, but they still annoyed me because I understood the attempt that wasn’t working.
Also, sometimes the controls are strange in how they respond and how buttons are used together, and I can’t help but wonder how well this was ported to the Xbox. It seems like it was just going to be a computer game at first, since even the console version recommends I put headphones on and sometimes I would get the “press any key” direction. So maybe these difficulties wouldn’t be an issue with a keyboard and mouse? Either way, puzzles were sometimes made much more difficult thanks to control issues, and not in the way that they’re meant to be challenging.
Going off of that, the game has a bit of a slow start. Like I just said, the controls don’t necessarily feel natural, so everything feels like it’s taking longer, and it takes a while for the story to get it together as well. The movie motif, for example, is clear from the start, and it’s pretty easy to figure out what time period(s) you’re inhabiting. I didn’t really care about the story until 2/5ths of the way in—where it almost feels like a different team took over and there’s an active movement away from cheesy jump scares to focus on a deeper story.
Which is good—not one of the jump scares actually scared me, there would be a loud noise or something like a rat running, and it almost felt like being really invested in a good book when someone tries to talk to you. I wouldn’t say, “Oh no, a noise!” I would say, “I’m listening to dead kids playing out their childhood, here! Be quiet!” Or, in the case of the rats, well, you’re on a cruise ship in that part of the game. And rats love cruise ships, especially an early twentieth-century cruise ship.
There’s also a pursuer that’s much more prevalent in the first parts of the game than in latter parts, and my response was of the same nonplussed variety. He’s a flashing human shadow-shape that pursues you for short periods of time until he kills you or you manage to get out of his range. The first time he goes after you, you actually have to hide and hold a door shut… But this is the most interesting interaction you ever have with him.
As with the jump scares, he always showed up during great moments of exploration. So he never scared me, I was just mad at him. His appearances are also so random and short that most of the time I was questioning the point of even throwing him in. There’s no build up to his appearances that could create effective tension. Hearing him or even seeing flickers of his visage from the corner of the screen before he makes his big moves would change so much.
Fortunately, though, from part 3 on, he is drawn back a lot (or maybe I wasn’t triggering him) and you get to dig into the story much more effectively. And it’s an intriguing story—you travel through film sets, the cruise ship (which decays as the game continues), and what seems to be your character’s childhood home putting together their disturbed childhood and how that affected their present.
As with the first Layers of Fear, you go back to your private chambers from time to time, where memorabilia you’ve picked up is collected and can be examined at leisure to unlock more. There are also many visual clues that will lead you to a major revelation about the main character that the game doesn’t give you until the very end—so it also actively awards attentive players, which is nice. I’m here for the story, not the wiggly, blurry dude (although if he was handled a bit better, I would be down with him, too).
A definite strength in the game is the visuals. It looks good and is a recognizable world. For example, sometimes the cruise ship some of the story takes place on is brand new, as in the majority of the main character’s memories of it, sometimes it is rotten and molded, to the point where it must be what the character is imagining. But it’s still always very clearly the same ship. There are the visual clues that present their own additional story.
There are also interesting graphical elements. Moving mannequins are rampant throughout the game, and even though I don’t find mannequins particularly interesting or frightening in horror games anymore, they move in weird patterns. Their frame rates are cut so they move like they stepped out of a PlayStation One game. They would look totally normal in the context of a PS1 or early PS2 game—they were “good graphics” then.
In this game, where things move so fluidly, it’s really creepy—maybe the most effective “horror” aspect of this horror game for me. It’s also not an overplayed aspect in modern horror games—I imagine making your new game purposefully have “old” technological aspects feels like a gamble or “bad” to modern developers. But it paid off, and maybe in a year or two I’ll be kvetching that throwbacks to old graphics that put one on edge because of their strangeness in a modern game are now old hat.
The movie motif also works really well—in some ways. Certain stages in the game are clearly based on classic films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz (with a generic name in its stead because of copyright). It’s interesting to see stages based off of these classic movies, as well as what the revisionist history means for our main character (that they were a star in the game’s universe’s version of Metropolis, and so on). A great element in the game is using a magic lantern to view slides which contain collectible items necessary to progress in the story. It’s genuinely fun to collect the movie posters which are adapted to the story at hand, most of which take a hand from classic film posters.
But in some ways, even this falls short. These homages are a little sloppy at times. For example, Lang’s Metropolis premiered in 1927, where our character is meant to be our young, leading character. Wizard of Oz came out 13 years later, where our main character’s role is still meant to be no older than a teenager. The movies referenced travel further away from 1927 while still relying on roles that require the same, or very close age ranges, that a person obviously could not remain in for so long.
Eventually, things culminate with The Shining. On one hand, the twin imagery works—our main character had a slightly older sister and their relationship works with the imagery in some ways. But that’s not the only nod to the classic horror film and the jump to a movie from 1980 just doesn’t work. That’s the most frustrating because 1927 to 1939 would have been enough to pick from a wide variety of hits, horror movies and otherwise.
The first Layers of Fear really does have an amazing set of layers, relying on real art, real pop culture, and contemporary technology to create an effective and frightening story. Work was put in. The sequel feels like someone skimmed a Wikipedia page of, I don’t know, “historically impactful movies.” Even things down to the coloration feels wrong—the Metropolis section is in black and white, like the real film is. But there are tints of colors here and there, as if it’s gradually seeping in. Cool idea. But it’s boring visually, and the tinting isn’t accurate—the first color processes were either tinted plates that made everything one color or garish technicolor. Subtlety ain’t the word here.
Everything doesn’t have to be historically accurate, of course, but the first game did set a certain standard. The standard wasn’t dipping your toes in—even the music in the game that fits the story so well it must have been made for the game was a classic song. It would not have been hard to mine film history for similar details. It’s fun for references, but it’s disappointingly shallow if you love the framework for this game, films.
The writing feels this way too. The overall story is interesting enough, and I genuinely wasn’t expecting the final, big twist. Kudos to that final climactic moment. (Then, like so many other good moments in the game, they shoehorn another jump scare in that just doesn’t do anything more than lessen the blow of the effective storytelling.) But there are mysterious statements by a mysterious voice that, although it sounds creepy (Tony Todd does do a great job) says a whole lot of nothing, things like “It’s pursuing you… It will never leave you…” Mysterious, obscure statements that sound deep but are essentially just a lot of white noise.
Overall, the game runs right in the middle of the road. It’s not bad, and it’s not stellar. Its potential to be a great horror game is what drives most of my complaints. I can see where they could have gone further and really buckled down with source material to bring out a deeper story. I can see where an attempt to make things more traditional and in line with other horror games—like including the unscary jump scares—detracted from a story that could just exist as a psychological horror game, or could have been expanded to make traditional horror game elements at least more interesting.
Layers of Fear 2 is currently available on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam.