It Came From the Xbox Game Pass: Layers of Fear

 

Layers of Fear was part of the Games with Gold service back in March, so if you’ve been a Live subscriber and kept up on activating your monthly titles, you already have this in your library. I activated my copy in March and haven’t given it a try because, I will admit, there is nothing that I loathe more than the horror game genre outside of maybe the mobile gaming sphere and the degenerative effect it is having on the industry overall (a conversation for another day).

My problem with horror games is that they so easily fall into the same hole as many horror films, where ‘psychological horror’ has slowly changed to mean ‘gradually increasing music followed by the OOGA BOOGA BOOGA’ jump scare, as we delve into the past of another protagonist with his insanity/dead family/amnesia/drug problem. I will also admit that I’ve been spoiled on great horror. Resident Evil 7 is terrifying on Playstation 4’s VR, Amnesia/SOMA are fantastic games, and we’ve had years of titles like the old Resident Evil games that still spook if less so in the modern era. But Layers of Fear is worse, it is a horror walking simulator.

Let me explain: Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a great (if sometimes frustrating) game because encounters were sparse and you couldn’t fight back, in fact you couldn’t even look at the monsters too long without going insane. Resident Evil 7 starts you out running and hiding and over time you gain the ability to fight back, although it is still a very haunting game. A big part of horror games is the fear of danger, of death, of failure. It’s not enough to just be in a spooky place, you have to believe that there is something that poses a threat. Take that building block away and the game starts to fall apart. Obviously I’m talking in the context of my in-game character with the level of immersion you’d expect to have with any piece of media.

Layers of Fear does attempt to introduce more immersion by having you grip down with the right trigger and pull open doors and drawers with the right joystick. It would have been a nice touch, were it implemented ten years ago, but here it is janky and more often than not you’ll find yourself fiddling with the controls because, despite the button prompt being up, the game doesn’t register that you’re grabbing hold.

And that’s why Layers of Fear lost me within the first five minutes, after I realized that this was a carnival fun house where no matter how spooky things got, nothing could harm me. The premise of the game is simple, you play an artist returning to his home to finish his painting. As you move around through the house, collecting mementos and reliving memories, you slowly piece together what happened in his life to bring him to this state, as he appears to break down into insanity and the world warps around him. In short: It’s very close to every other ‘psychological horror’ walking simulator to come out in the last five years.

Which is terrible, because Layers of Fear clearly has some talented people at the helm. Much of the credit has to be given to the level designers putting together a house that will give you whiplash as you try to find your way around. The level seamlessly warps, entering a room only for the door to disappear when you turn around to go back, for another door to appear where you had just encountered a dead end. The absolute worst thing you could have happen is for the player to witness these changes, but the game perfectly ensures (without taking control of the camera, mind you) that you don’t.

But then you have a list of horror tropes that I can only assume came off of a checklist, and the game suffers for it and in some cases you’ll find yourself laughing at what was probably intended to be a serious moment. For every impressive moment, like a low-tone gramophone that causes the room to melt, you have six that are cheesy and take way too long to finish up. In one scene, the room fills with dolls that vibrate very fast and then disappear, but are poorly place and half-clipped through objects in some cases like the developer just rushed through that scene. As I said, you know a game has missed its target hard when you’re laughing at scenes that were probably intended to be serious.

And then you have this:

So Layers of Fear can be best surmised by this process: Go into room, figure out how to activate jump scare, find memento or item to pick up (if there is one) and then continue. At best, it’s a good resume item for the artists, level designers, and audio engineers because the folks at Bloober Team do some crazy stuff with the Unity engine. The paintings present in the game are beautiful, haunting masterpieces and the soundtrack is just as unnerving to listen to. It’s a pain, therefore, that the story is so sparse and doesn’t really go anywhere.

Your first play through of Layers of Fear will take around 4-5 hours, which begs the question since the game is free: Is it worth your time? If you’re a Youtuber who makes big money off of screaming into a camera, then you’ve probably already missed your chances of cashing in on this title. If you’re looking for something to make your Xbox Game Pass worth the time, then put this down toward the bottom of the list. #90, assuming you can make it through everything else.

Final Score: 5/10
Recommended for: When you have nothing else to play.

Layers of Fear is beautifully designed, but the scares are often so laughably bad that it’s hard to stay immersed in the world or care about the protagonist or his family. Numerous frame rate dips made this difficult to enjoy further as the game became choppy in some areas. There are so many better horror games to be playing right now, with more interesting characters, engaging gameplay, and better presented spooks that Layers of Fear should be reserved for when you have absolutely nothing else to do.

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