When the original Layers of Fear released in 2016 it made a big impression. Be that for the photo-realistic house of horrors Bloober had lovingly crafted. Or the wackiest hallucination scenes – possibly – ever seen in gaming. Yet Layers of Fear also made an impression for its occasionally disappointing nature. It was around four hours long and the scares came so thick and fast, even that short play time began to wear out its welcome. Regardless, the lesser known, but very talented Bloober Team had created something flawed but special. This time around, Layers of Fear 2 still holds onto the theme of artistry.
However, we’re now dealing with the film industry. It’s clear that a lot of the team at Bloober are movie buffs. Which means, dotted around our wacky journey, we’ll see references to classics like Nosferatu, Metropolis and the Exorcist. Although, in the case of the game, these are old movies our protagonist has starred in coming back to haunt him.
It is clear that Bloober has listened to audience criticism. Layers 2 enjoys a longer run time than its predecessor (now six hours). This means scares are now more carefully positioned. Which gives the game a healthier sense of pacing. It also allows time for a more coherent story.
To say Layers of Fear 2’s story is more coherent than its predecessor is, unfortunately, not saying much. The nature of both games’ stories are of those told in solitude, with very little in the way of supporting characters to add context to anything. On top of that, they are stories told from the inside of an insane person’s head. In other words, the vast majority of what we learn along the way is open to interpretation.
Layers of Fear 2 is a game that respects the intelligence of the player by never telling them anything explicitly. It’ll be up to the player to decipher all the visual metaphor, the collected documents and ambiguous phrases; then piece everything together. This can lead to a somewhat disjointed experience if you dare not to pay attention for a second. So if movies with chopped up chronologies tend to rub you the wrong way, Layers of Fear 2 is likely to do the same.
What is communicated to the player fairly clearly is the game’s beginning. This anchors us into the game surprisingly quickly. Our protagonist is a famous actor, who’s career has begun to take a turn for the worse. In a move to reclaim his fading fame, he agrees to make a film with an enigmatic director. A man who insists on putting his actors through trials and tribulations as a kind of next-level method acting. We learn the actor has voiced serious discomfort about setting foot on any sea faring vessel but he goes for it, in order to keep on top of his career. Quite why he was so unwilling to board the ocean liner is something you will have to find out for yourselves.
The Rest Is Up To You
To discuss story any further would be unfair to our readers planning on playing Layers of Fear 2. Yes, a lot of it is open to interpretation. Which means if I discuss anything, it may be a spoiler for a part of the story you would conclude meant something else altogether. What is clear as day however, is that this kind of purposeful confusion was masterfully crafted for Layers of Fear and Bloober have excelled at doing it again. Not only that, but Layers of Fear 2 has three different endings based on crucial decision making moments in each of the five acts.
How those endings play out have an effect on the meaning of a lot of things seen earlier in the game. While the story may be confusing to some, there’s no denying the mastery of writing at play. That said, you may want to Google “Layers of Fear 2 story explained” after you finish the game, just to see if you got the right end of the stick.
Predicting the Player
To a certain degree, every developer has to bear in mind what most players are likely to do. They have to put themselves in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know what will happen next and design around that. Especially so in the case of an atmospheric walking simulator like Layers of Fear 2. On an almost omniscient level, Bloober manage to do this with perfect precision. They really know how to catch us off-guard with a room reveal.
For example, your attention will be drawn to a certain spot in a room. Bloober has made sure of this. So while you stare at this thing they have distracted you with, they’ve used that time to morph whatever was behind you. It may turn into a completely different room. Perhaps it’ll present you with a creepy ghost child obnoxiously banging his feet on a wardrobe.
Most impressively, you may look up in a normal room, then down again to see a completely new room with strong reference The Wizard of Oz. Bloober’s skill in real-time transition is something I really appreciated as part of a stimulating gameplay experience. It lends wonderfully to the theme of insanity and best of all, it makes the game entirely unpredictable. When there are no rules to the reality of this world, surprises will catch you off guard every time. It’s clean, never glitchy and I never moved in a way that caught it out. Bravo Bloober.
Approach to Puzzles
Layers of Fear’s puzzles were entirely optional. It was up to the player to decide if they wanted to learn more about the story or simply press on. Optional puzzles are back for Layers 2, however puzzle solving is now also needed to progress. A lot of these are movement based “stay out of the light” scenarios. Occasionally, puzzles will be of a more mechanical nature. It is typically obvious what you must do to reach their solution. Although there will be one or two that may have you reaching for your phone to look up a walkthrough. In the case of the clock below for instance, I could see it was a puzzle but what was needed was not clear to me.
For the entirety of my playthrough, there were only two of these kinds of moments. The rest of the time, Bloober makes sure not to push their luck with hindrances to momentum through the game. In other words, 90% of the puzzles are so simple they barely qualify as puzzles. This is by no means a criticism. Just a heads up to let you know Layers of Fear 2 is not exactly a brain teaser of a title.
The Layers of Fear Experience
Those who played Layers of Fear will know what I mean by “experience” in this case. Layers of Fear 2, much like its predecessor, doesn’t follow the typical rules of videogames. A basic blueprint would tell us this is a linear game that asks us to go from A to B. However, in the case of Layers of Fear 2, the line between those two points is blurred. Occasionally, there is a sense of going the wrong way or doing the wrong thing. As soon as that sense kicks in, something happens to tell you you are indeed progressing. It’s a fine art to instil a sense of discomfort in anyone for six hours consistently. Not quite something Bloober fully achieved in the first Layers of Fear. This time around however, level design and the aforementioned “predicting the player” ensures the unsettling nature of the game from start to finish.
This makes for a “just surrender to it” kind of mindset that I’ve not experienced in any other game (except LOF 1 of course). You give up creating a mind map of your surroundings as you would for literally any other game. When you do surrender to this, and stop stubbornly trying to apply logic, you can be sure a memorable experience lies in wait, ready to engulf you. That is, if you’re up for a horror game that really does push the envelope. Resident Evil 2 is a squirrel compared to Layers of Fear 2’s great white shark, as far as horror is concerned. A big part of that is how much effort has been put into Layers 2’s soundscapes.
Atmosphere in a game is built on a well crafted design cocktail. There has to be a perfect marriage of lighting, sound and repeated mini-reveals. All working together, they set the mood. In the case of Layers of Fear 2, Bloober leaned most heavily into sound to make their atmosphere cocktail.
As the game loads up, the player is prompted to grab themselves a headset. Naturally I did so on my first session. After that, every session was with headphones. Bloober has made use of binaural audio to support their creepy atmospheres. This method of recording is known as “VR for your ears”. Layers of Fear 2’s binaural soundscapes simulate the sensation of really being there. No mere surround sound. Suffice it to say – Bloober make excellent use of the tech to keep you on the edge of your seat, start to finish.
Even the soundtrack deserves a shoutout. Moments of beauty occasionally shine through in the actor’s insanity. Tense chase scenes begin at the drop of a hat. New revelations in the story emerge. The soundtrack has got each and every one of these scenes covered. It ranges from beautiful string / piano pieces to the unnerving droning of raging synths. This part of the atmosphere cocktail is topped off with a soundtrack that does almost every moment justice.
The original Layers of Fear made use of the Unity engine to create its photo-realistic house of horrors. This time around however, Bloober have built their sequel on Unreal. This has not diminished the look of Layers of Fear in the slightest. In fact, the crisp environments Bloober are becoming known for hadn’t even suggested to me that the changeover in engine even happened. Bloober’s skill with building surreal and varied environments shines through in Layers of Fear 2 even more than its predecessor.
Most impressive though, is attention to detail. Textures are incredibly sharp and detailed. Lighting and shadows interact with one another effortlessly with no frame rate drops on the PS4. All of this coming together just amplifies the game when crazy stuff goes down before your eyes because it’s all so solid and functional.
A Closing Note
On a final note, there are critics online I fear could give you the wrong idea about Layers of Fear 2. There are those who will relentlessly try to convince you how boring it is. As with anything, choosing a game is your preference as a gamer. Everyone has their tastes. Layers of Fear 2 gets a high score from me because I appreciate what Bloober are doing on a game design level. The elaborate method of going from A to B and the perfect execution of it all – I dig it. But those may not be things that interest certain gamers in which case, the game hasn’t been made for them. Hopefully, after reading this review, you’ll know whether or not it’s been made for you.