Before we jump in I need to explain something: horror is my favorite genre, in both movies and games, and I experience every bit of it that I can. That being said, I have grown overly critical of horror simply because there is so much of it. First person narrative horror is the new fad among indie developers and, more often than not, their ideas are far larger than their resources which results in a subpar game that is lacking in some way or another. The first Layers of Fear was a shining example of a game made by a team who knew exactly what they had to work with and how to tell a compelling, nightmarish narrative with those resources. Now, the devs at Bloober Team are trying to re-capture that same thrilling experience with Layers of Fear 2 and I can say they definitely deliver. Oh man, do they deliver.
Layers of Fear 2 is a psychological horror game featuring a deep and troubling narrative that unfolds over the course of five acts. You are an actor in the 1930s and you are portraying a rather unique role for a film that will be shot at sea aboard a luxurious ocean liner. Upon starting the game you are not greeted with any cinematics, text, or any explanation of any kind. The game opens with you in the middle of a hallway on said ship and you must progress forward.
The beauty in this game is that you know absolutely nothing about it when you start, forcing you to look in every section of every area to find clues or notes about what is happening. That is the basic gameplay loop: move forward, act to act, solving puzzles, running from deadly creatures, and even questioning your own sanity.
In terms of design, this game is absolutely brilliant. The ship is created in painstaking detail and houses some seriously nightmare-inducing imagery. Some of the scenes I had wandered upon had me frozen in place, unable to move my character forward, genuinely fearful for what would happen if I did. The graphical prowess on show here paired with an art design that clearly came from the minds of true horror fans really sticks out and immerses you in the way a good horror story should. The audio is also no exception to this rule. I highly recommend playing with headphones as the team at Bloober really did a number with binaural audio. Voices, groans, creeks, screams, all happen around you and send shivers down your spine while never being too over-bearing or unwelcome. Not to mention the sultry, demonic tones of horror legend Tony Todd who fantastically narrates this interactive terror.
Layers of Fear 2 is not an action-heavy horror game. It is 100% a slow burn, narrative-driven experience which will not be for everyone. Personally, I love my horror to take its time, work its way into my brain, reaching a haunting climax that has my heart pounding, palms sweating, and leaves me constantly looking over my shoulder. This is the game's strongest tactic and if you are hoping for something with more moment to moment thrills akin to Resident Evil 7 or Outlast, then Layers of Fear 2 might not be for you. It builds its nightmare slowly, the tension growing thicker every minute.
Perhaps the most amazing part of this game is found within how the world changes around you. As you turn a corner or even turn to look behind you, the game environment will completely change into something entirely different without the use of any loading screens. As this mechanic becomes more frequent and slightly more subtle, you begin to question your own sanity and whether that door was always there or if something more sinister is at play. This ingenious idea was used in the first Layers of Fear and never wears thin here, keeping you on the edge of your seat. Nothing makes you squirm more than getting in an empty elevator and turning around to see you have been joined by a group of lifeless mannequins, staring into your soul.
At various points in the game, you will be asked to make a moral decision. These do affect how the game plays out and will change your ending, also requiring you to play through multiple times in order to experience the full story and obtain all of the endings. Luckily, after a first playthrough, New Game+ is unlocked that allows you to do just that and I highly recommend doing so. My first round took about 4 hours and sped up during my second. Only playing through Layers of Fear 2 once is doing a disservice to what terrors await you in round two.
I only have one negative about the game. There are a few chase sequences towards the beginning that are very specific in that you have to turn a certain way in order to move forward and not die. You can't hide, you can't outsmart what is chasing you, and if you hit one wall or one wrong turn, you're dead and you have to start over. After a few times of silly mistakes, I wasn't scared anymore and just wanted to get past that section but later chases fix this issue and give you the option to hide or take alternate routes. Oh, and notice how I said you can die? A huge criticism around the first game was that you could not die which, once discovered, made chase scenes feel silly and not scary at all. That changes this time around. You can, and will, die and the fear is very very real.
Being an actor shooting a film in the '30s, Bloober Team leans into subtle and not-so-subtle nods to iconic horror movies throughout the years such as The Shining, Pyscho, Nosferatu, and a few others. Many are set pieces or nightmarish sequences that actually add to the story and play far more of a role than simply being cleverly placed pop culture references. These were some of my favorite aspects of the game, being a horror snob myself, and seeing how the various films painted a picture for the unfolding narrative was really cool.
Layers of Fear 2 is a gripping, nightmarish experience that tells a hauntingly dark story. It's a slow-burn game that builds up to a blood-pumping climax and will have your heart racing. Bloober Team has crafted an amazing indie horror gem here with a clear passion for the subject matter that is very rarely found in other horror games. Layers of Fear 2 demands your attention, preys on your personal fears, and will linger with you long after the credits roll. This game will easily go in my top ten favorite horror games of all time. Side note: I never want to see another mannequin ever again.
Our Score: 9 out of 10
Layers of Fear 2 launches on May 28th for PC, Xbox One, and PS4.