NEED TO KNOW
What is it? First-person horror exploring the troubled memories and psyche of a classical Hollywood actor.
Expect to pay £21/$27
Developer Bloober Team
Publisher Gun Media
Reviewed on Intel Core i7-6700HQ, GeForce GTX 1070, 16GB RAM
Link Official site
A brigade of mindless mannequins blocking your path, ghouls crawling out of televisions, and a susurrus of whispers drifting down the dank corridors of a cargo vessel. Layers of Fear 2 is slathered in horror tropes we’ve seen before, and that’s okay. There’s something goofy and comforting in the inevitable repetitions of the genre, but the trick is to reconfigure and spread them out in a way that still manages to surprise us.
Layers of Fear 2 exhibits a wide knowledge of these tropes, and of cinema history, but it fails to coagulate them into its own identity.
Where its predecessor charted a painter’s descent into madness, here we’re teased with the possibility that we’ll go on an equivalent journey with a successful Hollywood actor. It starts off promisingly, as you arrive on a lavish early 20th century cruise liner to shoot a movie. Strange voiceovers ensue, a growly voice tells you about disappearing into acting roles, the mental strains of wearing different ‘masks’, and all the rest of it, and it readies you for a full-speed-ahead odyssey into insanity.
But it’s all a bit of a bluff. The game stretches across a protracted five acts, the middle three of which you spend mostly in flashback as a young version of yourself, running around drab environments that make your school boiler room look and feel like a high-viz '90s rave. You glide across steely walkways and decrepit wooden homesteads, stumbling upon mannequin-populated scenes, items that trigger voice-over dialogue between you and your troubled family, and the occasional chase from a monster that looks inexplicably… genitalian.
This monster has a habit of appearing from thin air to simultaneously jump-scare and insta-kill you; a cheap trick that lost its novelty, ooooh, I’d say about halfway through FEAR 14 years ago.
There’s ambition here for sure, with developer Bloober Team adding some new scary techniques on top of its focused ghost-train of a predecessor. Layers of Fear 2 has visually evocative moments, with the early game filled with optical illusions that make you see spectral figures in your peripheral vision, and environments that do subtle switcheroos behind your back to disorient you. These tricks chip away at your senses, blurring the line between your own increasingly paranoid mind and the character’s sanity.
But it struggles to keep up the momentum across its 9-10 hour play time. Subsequent acts get drowned in a sea of poor pacing and flat horror movie references that lack cohesion in an already confused plot.
The optical illusions get replaced by an endless supply of mannequins that either stand around in movie-like scenes or jolt out of nowhere to contort into unseemly shapes, and you’ll witness scenes ripped straight from horror classics like The Shining and Ring with zero context. It’s like the work of a hyperactive horror fan who can’t get their rampant thoughts into place.
Even the title cards for each act, stylishly drawing on horror styles ranging from '20s vaudeville to '70s Kubrick and '80s Argento, feel meaningless, tying in tenuously at best into the game’s scatty themes of acting and identity. It breaks the mould to occasionally treat us to striking scenes in Deco lobbies, creepy screening rooms and fantasy pirate lands from a child’s imagination, but its struggle for stylistic consistency dulls the horror.
The confusing chaos of the horror sequences is overshadowed by segments where nothing much happens at all. The first act does a good job of building tension and setting a tone, but the early good work gets derailed in subsequent acts, which take place in dull environs and introduce a litany of pace-tripping puzzles.
Some puzzles, like the slide projectors that manifest items and doors on eerie monochrome screens work well enough, while keeping with the tone and theme of the game. Others are so inane and frustrating that they hark back to the dark ages of '90s adventure game puzzle logic. The room with the shadow plant and taps, or the flare cannons dotted around a pirate ship, may just drive you over the edge with their lack of direction.
Like the original, Layers of Fear 2 is a game of loops. Completing each act sets you back in your cabin, piecing together a story about why your character is the tortured thespian they are. Act 3 takes this to tortuous extremes, as you crawl through a vent four (or is it five?) times to drop into different rooms in your warped, wooden childhood home. We get it, the loops represent the obsessiveness of a broken and brilliant mind, but where the original harnessed this into a concise narrative, here it’s not delivered with the same presentational focus.
Layers of Fear 2 is a bloated beast, its early chilling atmosphere replaced by an attempt at psychoanalytical storytelling it doesn’t quite know how to handle. You can feel it reaching for something higher at times, as evidenced by some of the visually striking screenshots, but in the end just as it pays lip service to great ideas in horror and cinema while failing to anchor its own.