What scares you? Maybe it’s the unknown, or the uncanny, or perhaps even worse wondering whether you can trust your own perceptions. Layers of Fear 2 follows its predecessor in creating a dynamic dreamscape that slowly reveals a dark secret as you travel through. The first casts you in the shoes of a painter exploring his mansion as everything around him slowly unravels into madness and disarray. The sequel improves upon this technique, but at almost triple the length of the original, is this journey into the dark depths of the human psyche worth the trip? Or like a bad dream, is it best forgotten?
Layers of Fear 2 places you onboard a ship that, from the get-go, is already having issues. Lights flicker, water leaks from the ceiling, and valves split open from too much pressure. You find your way into a finely decorated cabin. Scattered about are hints that you are an actor and as is the duty of a good thespian, you must create for yourself a new character. That is, after all, the reason you came on this ship in the first place. The theme of an actor’s power to create and then inevitably cast away a new personality runs throughout the whole. As the story reveals itself, this theme is expanded and taken to some rather dark places as more twists and turns come about. This is where Layers of Fear 2 makes the greatest improvement upon its predecessor: the story.
Both games deal with madness in some form. In fact, perhaps more to the point they deal with perception and how traumatic events can shatter the psyche. But while the first Layers of Fear used its odd, Wonderland-like level designs to express a painter’s descent into despair, it lacked a cohesive theme except for the frequent use of paint spatter covering areas of the home like Jackson Pollock had gone on a mad escapade. Fitting, but it didn’t tell us much. Other areas were more outlandish like an impossibly tall library, but rarely did they add much to the story which often felt a little too scattered even for psychological horror.
Layers of Fear 2 does a much better job of hinting at what exactly happened using items you find and more importantly the areas of the ship through which you wonder. The theme of death and creation as a part of building the character you need to become is interwoven well between all five acts. Sometimes this comes across more literally than at other times. It is difficult to mention a more exact example without giving away part of the plot. Buteven one of the more bizarre (and creepy) elements of the game: the frequent use of manikins, demonstrates how carefully the developers considered imagery and how it connects to the theme. The discovery of a small artist’s manikin early on is a clever segue into the ongoing and far more horrifying use of manikins thereafter to represent how much of yourself you must give to play your part. In fact, Layers of Fear 2 is in some ways more appreciable after the fact when you have a moment to consider how everything fits together to tell the story.
The surroundings and environmental effects can be quite stunning. Much of your trip will be amongst the various levels of the aforementioned dilapidated ocean liner. However, even simple environments like hallways look well rendered and vibrant. The developers make great use of lighting effects as well such as black and white, and the use of light and dark to develop mood and guide you along your journey. You will also walk through extravagant and sometimes even beautiful environments such as a pirate ship at sea or, on the more fantastical and terrifying side, a sinister factory wrought with themes of death and savagery.
Perhaps more so than the environments the sound is really what adds the ongoing sense of dread. Using binaural audio, (a type of 3D sound recording using two mics) the game easily tricks you into feeling as if the sounds of disembodied whispers, creaking boards, or fast approaching steps are coming from all around you, not just directionally. It is akin to virtually entering a 3D acoustic world. If you really let yourself dive into the game, as it is clearly meant to be more of a lived experience than anything else, you will notice how the sounds wash over you and trick your senses into feeling as if you are surrounded by the hellish environments cast upon the screen. Just, auditorily in this case instead of visually. The sound, put to great use and usually saved for environmental effects rather than music, is so prevalent and so natural feeling that nothing in the game is more troubling than when it noticeably stops. When it does it has the same effect as if one were to notice the wind in the trees and the chirping birds had suddenly stopped making noise all at once.
Gameplay in Layers of Fear 2 is simple because it is really more about experience than skill. You will spend most of your time wandering about the various environments which shift and morph around you. For example, you might walk into a room and exit through the same door you entered only to find you are in a new hallway or area. Aside from the environment, the tale largely reveals itself through audio snippets, notes, and other items you will discover along the way. The items you collect and tasks you complete will determine which of three endings you get. Gameplay consists largely of walking and opening doors, cabinets, and drawers. A few times during the game, however, you will be required to run for your life or dodge obstacles like fire and spotlights. These moments are few and far between, but add some justification behind the sense of apprehension the game builds throughout.
Puzzles are simple for the most part and require very little time to solve. In some cases, it is nothing more than a matter of looking in a designated direction or randomly locating an area to find a code. In others, you will have to manipulate objects to form a certain pattern or generate a certain response. While the game does very little hand-holding when it comes to puzzles, very little is actually needed.
During my first playthrough I found myself easily giving into the unnerving, enigmatic atmosphere the game creates. Each sound had me at the ready to run or hide. But even more so I was fascinated by the spectacle of oddities the game generates. Doors forming from still images as if being burned into reality, chalk drawing taking on a life of their own, the easy acceptance of the topsy-turvy world in which I found myself as if it were the most natural thing but tarred always with a deep, knowing sense that I was seeing all these things through the dark lens of some awful, terrible event I had not yet discovered.
The only drawback to Layers of Fear 2’s formula is if you don’t allow yourself to be taken in, or if you play through more than once as the game encourages you to do with the multiple endings, much of the fear falls away. Despite some action elements, the game shares much in common with walking simulators. This is not a bad thing because great storytelling can come in many interactive forms. But once I began playing through again all the tension was gone. I knew all the game’s tricks. It became more like a funhouse than a horror. Pull this level, open this drawer, take this turn. Run here and stop here. The original game was only about three hours in length which is a perfect runtime for replay with a game like Layers of Fear. However, the six to 10 hours it takes to beat the second can easily begin to feel tedious after a first run.
There are also a handful of cheap instadeaths. The game directs you on occasion to run by having the monster show up and instantly kill you so you will know for the next time. At least the punishment for a restart isn’t severe. It is, however, duly annoying.
Layers of Fear 2 still exists in a vague category between survival horror and a walking simulator. It is, however, captivating enough to lure you ever forward despite the fact that you won’t find yourself doing much more than exploring. Its story is more carefully woven and concise than the first despite its longer length and manages to secure a hold on your curiosity. However, there is one other thing the developers can tighten a bit for the next round. There is quite a bit of narrated soliloquy which says a lot for not saying much. Being poetic in a surreal horror setting isn’t out of place. But, it can easily be overdone and that is the case in this instance.
The human mind is a fascinating thing and when broken can easily alter the mundane into both stunning illusions and nightmarish visions. Between the dreamlike atmosphere and the encroaching reality of whatever shadowy secret you will discover you will find yourself willingly following the protagonist deeper and deeper into insanity. Despite being in a world wherein your actions are limited, this experience is worth the journey.