The Layers of Fear series is one of the most polarising in contemporary horror. Bloober Team's unique style of filling a walking simulator with intense paranormal scares isn't for everyone, but over the past seven years, it's become a notorious staple of the horror genre, carving out its own sub-genre in the process.
This latest and supposedly final entry in the trilogy, the confusingly titled Layers of Fear, is the culmination of the series' narrative to this point. Before heading back to work on the beloved Silent Hill series, Bloober Team is saying goodbye to the IP that put it on the map, neatly wrapping up this web of spooky stories once and for all.
As a newcomer to the series, I found Layers of Fear to more than stick that landing. It's not always as cohesive as it could be when it comes to storytelling, but if you're willing to go all-in on the walking simulator-esque gameplay, there's a rewarding, rollicking horror romp to enjoy.
The story of Layers of Fear aims to wrap up the disparate narratives of the first two games, which followed a painter and an actor respectively. This game retells those stories in a remixed manner, reprising some of the same locations and narrative beats, but adding more fleshed-out characters and a range of possible endings based on your choices.
This is all bookended by a completely new narrative, revolving around a writer in the 1950s tasked with spending time alone at a lighthouse, while working on a book about these tortured artists. It's during this time of total isolation that she discovers the thread which links all three of them together: a demon that seems to seep through artistic personalities, giving them an all-consuming obsession with their work.
For a game that's light on cutscenes and relies almost entirely on environmental storytelling and narration, I found myself surprisingly intrigued by the story of Layers of Fear. While it's billed as a series-closer, the way it casually retells the stories of the artist and actor means you aren't missing much if you haven't played the previous two games. In a way, you may actually be at advantage, avoiding any weariness you might experience if you're playing through these stories again.
Layers of Fear really digs into the idea of artistic obsession and the toll it takes on people, portraying three creatives whose lives are utterly ruined in the quest to create their magnum opus. Of course, this is a horror game, so nothing is quite that simple. Instead, there's a nameless, but utterly terrifying, demon that possesses all three characters. Less of a persistent threat than Resident Evil's Mr. X, we instead hear this demon constantly belittling the player as you progress through these haunting locales, alongside appearing as an intensely creepy painting that crops up from time to time.
While it's enjoyable to witness the rollercoaster of psychological horror that affects each of these characters, from a pure narrative perspective, it isn't especially well-focused. The story is mostly told through lore-filled letters and documents, and is often left up to your interpretation. While this may be fine if you're here purely for the scares, if you're a long-term fan desperate for a satisfying conclusion to the overarching story, you'll have to hunt for it yourself. Generally, the painter's story is far more engaging and well-told than the writer's, and it's the one that's stuck with me most since finishing the ten-hour long story mode.
Fortunately, there's enough spooky walking gameplay to keep you entertained between the rare explicitly-delivered story beats. As with previous games in the series, all you really do is walk around, with combat having been eschewed in order to create a far more helpless experience. I ended up quite liking this, as one of the best ways traditional horror games can make you feel safe is by giving you the means to fight back, so by completely removing that, Layers of Fear makes you feel a lot more vulnerable.
The only thing you can do to ward off the various enemies you come across is shining your flashlight, which can temporarily incapacitate baddies for long enough to let you dash away. You're left utterly powerless, at the mercy of the malign forces out to get you, which is a bold gameplay choice. Of course, that isn't unique to this game, but as a newcomer to the series, it's nice to see the influence of Hideo Kojima's ill-fated P.T. live on.
What I liked most about Layers of Fear's gameplay was how the environment constantly melds together and shifts just outside of your field of vision. You'll walk down a hallway, contending with horrific noises or objects popping out in front of you, only to find yourself in completely new surroundings once you turn around. This makes the game feel like an endless maze, constantly shifting to disorient you and take away the comfort you might get from becoming familiar with your surroundings. I was always curious to see what environmental changes would come next, and it's safe to say that Bloober Team gets pretty weird with these transitions to new and increasingly unhinged areas as the game progresses.
Alongside those sequences, you'll often partake in various puzzle-solving sequences to progress to new areas. These are often fairly simple, ranging from the correct ordering of images to moving objects to specific places around a room. Sometimes, however, they can feel a bit obtuse, and the lack of an objective marker, alongside a hint system that was mentioned in press materials but not present in the review build of the game, can grind the pace to a halt if you're struggling to clear a puzzle.
As one of the first games to wholly take advantage of Unreal Engine 5, Layers of Fear looks just as stunning as you'd expect. The lack of character models means Bloober Team has focused almost entirely on crafting interior locations and objects, resulting in a really gorgeous experience. Light glistens off of surfaces, rain clatters against murky windows, and all of the textures react brilliantly to the constantly shifting landscape. It's a stunning game to look at, and yet more evidence that Unreal Engine 5 is the future.
However, I did end up with a few complaints about Layers of Fear on a technical basis. Sometimes the sound design lets itself down a bit: it's often great and very detailed, but then occasionally I'd find specific actions like the picking up of a telephone happening with no accompanying sound effect. It's likely the sort of thing that could easily be patched after release, but when things can otherwise feel very immersive, it becomes hard to ignore.
Alongside that, the inherently repetitive loop of playing through sections of a character's memories multiple times can become a bit tiresome. In some of the side chapters, you have to repeat some cutscenes and short five-minute gameplay sequences to progress, even if you've seen them before. Yet again, this just feels a bit grating, like you're treading water rather than actually moving forwards.
Overall, Layers of Fear is a solid conclusion to the series that sticks strictly to what made it successful in the first place, not taking any massive risks in the meantime. This wasn't a problem to me as a newcomer: I enjoyed its hands-off walking sim gameplay and intriguing if vague story, but those who've loyally followed the series may find the lack of innovation and dramatic storyline conclusions on offer a bit unsatisfying.
Reviewed on Xbox Series S. A code was provided by the publisher.