The first Layers of Fear, developed by Bloober Team, was a surprise horror hit, and one that I liked a lot. It was a simple walking-sim, but what It lacked in complex gameplay it more than made up for with insane visuals and set pieces, terrifying atmosphere, and a disturbing story. Layers of Fear 2 amps up all of this with multiple diverse environments, a more intriguing story, and some much-needed gameplay mechanics. While two of these enhancements make the sequel a worthy improvement, one of them, unfortunately, holds the game back.
Like the first, you’ll again take the role of a tortured artist, this time an actor taking directions from an unseen and very creepy director. In doing so, you’ll travel and explore the secrets of your past to build your new “character.” In gameplay terms, this means making decisions at critical moments of the story and choosing whether to obey or disobey the director, leading to different endings.
While the story starts very abstract, by picking up collectibles that fill in the gaps of your backstory, it slowly starts to come together. There’s a bit of meandering and obtuseness when it comes to unraveling it all, and you might end up guessing the twists before they happen, but it still ends satisfyingly. If nothing else, it’s a step up from the last game’s story, and the perfect framing for an exploration of the mind.
This time around though, Bloober Team have swapped out a mansion with a painting motif for a cruise ship steeped in old-timey film imagery. And like the first, exploring the world is the best part about it. From the moment I saw the first trailer for this game, I loved the idea of taking the idea of a cliched haunted mansion and instead putting it on a ship.
And while this new locale doesn’t quite live up to my expectations (there’s still a lot of running around empty hallways), the game managed to successfully subvert them by drastically changing the environments for every level. Not to get too much into spoiler territory, but Bloober Team does not let the initial cruise ship idea constrain them at all. Levels just keep getting more abstract and creatively frightening, and it’s exciting knowing you could literally go anywhere around the next corner.
My time with Layers of Fear 2 was like descending into madness as the world decayed to reflect the main character’s fractured mind. If you can, I recommend playing this game in one extended sitting for the best mind-trip experience. It will truly feel like you’ve traveled through a nightmare and back again.
The film motif is used to great effect too. Every chapter is precluded by a creepy old-timey movie and interspersed with loading screens ripped straight out of famous horror titles. You’ll solve puzzles that have you playing with the idea of cinema and find crazy (if a bit distracting) references to famous movies and the history of cinema. Long segments of gameplay will even revert to black and white to surprisingly beautiful and eerie effect. Enemies will stumble after you with a cool jittery stop motion effect.
Speaking of which, in contrast to the first, Layers of Fear 2 does introduce enemies and puzzles. We ain’t no walking sim anymore. But maybe it should have been?
As I’ve previously discussed, I’m not the biggest fan of chase scenes in horror games. Especially mandatory ones that don’t give you any offensive or stealth options, and result in instant game overs. Add to that an ear-splitting jump scare on every failure, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration.
Unfortunately, this is where Layers of Fear 2 starts to decline in my eyes. One or two chase scenes to mix up gameplay would have been exciting, especially in a game where the only thing you have to fear is fear itself. But then comes another scripted chase. Then another, and another. It did admittedly get less frustrating as I got a handle on first-person running through almost pitch-black areas, but it was nevertheless an annoying experience.
And this isn’t the only instance of being suddenly ripped right out of the game with a death, as you’ll have to dodge… beams of light and gusts of wind? All of this wouldn’t have been so bad if you’d been given a few more options – maybe a way to stealth around a monster or hide from it after being caught, but it instead just devolves into a game of trial and error.
I eventually had to take off my headphones because I was getting so sick of the overly loud jump scare noises at every game over. For a game as immersive as this, the choice to have such sudden and often game over opportunities is a strange one. And seriously, dodging a beam of light through a maze isn’t scary or fun.
Another added gameplay mechanic is the inclusion of light puzzles, but they’re not much to write home about. Most of them are either braindead easy (solve a security lock with the code literally written beside it) or simple scavenger hunts. I found myself getting stuck on a few of these puzzles, just thinking there was no way the solution was as easy as presented, only for that to really be the case.
For as wildly creative as the world gets, I just wish the mechanics imitated this as well. It may seem odd to complain about the actual addition of gameplay elements, but when they’re as aggravating as the enemy encounters or as simple as adding numbers together, I wonder if they were necessary at all.
Obviously, I have some mixed feelings on Layers of Fear 2. The highs are certainly higher than the first, with a cranked-up intensity to the world and a more intriguing story. But there are more than a few moments of frustration that I never had with the original either, while at the same time I do appreciate the improvement on player agency. Maybe others will enjoy these sections more than me, or maybe I’m just bad at video games .
Overall, I still enjoyed my time with Layers of Fear 2. Not all of it, but I play these games for their horrific imagery and atmosphere, and the game delivers that in spades. For a creatively terrifying experience like none other, one that relentlessly throws every kind of horror you didn’t even know was possible at you, Layers of Fear 2 is worth the nightmares.
Insta-death light beams notwithstanding.