Layers of Fear made quite the splash when it landed in the indie gaming scene not too long ago. Originally supposed as an installment in the ever-growing trend of “jump scare” horror games that made a quick buck and got good YouTube streams. After all, Bloober Team had only really put out small, innocuous titles prior to this, so expectations weren’t really set high. In reality, Layers of Fear quickly garnered a massive audience through word-of-mouth, genuine accolades and, yes, YouTube streaming from some of the biggest names in the youth circuit. Now, on the second anniversary of the game’s release, Layers of Fear has come home to roost on the Nintendo Switch with bold new capacities, entitled Layers of Fear: Legacy.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Layers of Fear centers around the first-person exploits of our unnamed protagonist, who is simply known as The Artist. Finding himself alone in his home, the Artist must discover what has happened to his family, who have left telltale markers around the home (a messy child’s bedroom, a shared parlor and master bed), but there isn’t a living soul around. Or so it seems. Very quickly, we start to see the Artist devolve into a sort of madness as the atmosphere and his own mind shape terrible and horrible situations before him. With multiple areas to explore, several mysteries to solve and plenty of terrible, terrible truths to learn, the path ahead is dark, awful and, ultimately, a masterpiece.
Layers of Fear is all about the journey, not the destination, and players have their choice of how to approach the game. Nearly every surface in the game can be interacted with: I spent a good twenty minutes when I first started checking and opening every single cabinet and drawer. It’s important to note that a majority of this is for atmosphere only: nearly all of the important stuff that you need to move the game forward is on the surface and can be easily found. The deeper dive into things is an element that I’ll bring up later, but please keep in mind, for those just looking to play, that you can really minimize your endless searches. Looking around, you’ll discover clues in hand-written notes, newspaper clippings and photographs, as well as items that are used to further the plot directly and indirectly. As far as horror based exploration games, you understand the concept right away. The success and appeal, however, is in the presentation.
Layers of Fear plays like a wonderful turn of the century horror story, capturing elements of The Portrait of Dorian Gray meets The Yellow Wallpaper. Although there are certainly jump scares (a couple were so strong that I got physically angry), most of the terror comes from straight up suspense and building tension. There are simple moments, like floorboards that creak and doors that lock behind you, that constantly leave you in a state of anxiety as you move forward. As much as I want to recommend playing Layers of Fear all in one sitting, it’s nearly impossible to keep the momentum going without desperately needing a break. This comes in two different, succinct reasons. For one, I was getting freaked out of my head at every single sound and I needed fresh air, and, for two, I needed a break from the darkness. Not the figurative darkness of the Artist (which is heavy as hell), but the very literal, shadowy darkness needed to play this game.
You see, like so many atmospheric horror games, Layers of Fear plays heavily on the unknown and the unseen to shape the best fears for each player, which requires the game to have particularly dark corridors, corners and rooms with poor lighting. You can adjust the light in the settings, of course, but it’s hard to reach a nice balance between “mysterious and foreboding” and “over-gamma exposure.” If you amp up the lighting too much, the game looks cartoonish in presentation, totally ruining some of the exposure moments and leaving you feeling silly when things like shambling bodies or falling vegetables happen. However, when you turn down the game lights, you have to accomodate with proper gaming room atmosphere as well: drawing the curtains and turning off the florescent is the only way to make sure you can make out the outlines of where you’re going. I tried to play on the commuter rail with the lights down a bit and I thought my Switch had run out of power.
Still, Bloober Team has done a ton in bringing Layers of Fear to the Switch in a proper Legacy port. If you do decide to take the mobile approach, the touchscreen controls are quite responsive and are, honestly, the easiest way to interact with a lot of exploration techniques since there isn’t a mouse peripheral for the Switch yet. On the other hand, docking the Switch allows for the full Nintendo treatment to take place, with some great motion controls for manipulation of items, as well as beautiful use of HD rumble. I’ve given Layers of Fear a play previously on the computer, and the Switch port has this brand new element and feeling to it with adding your own physical presence in diving into the game. You almost feel like you’re more there, and it gave me flashes of a VR version of Layers of Fear, which I instantly realized I will never, ever play.
Besides the beautiful port work and fantastic controls, Layers of Fear: Legacy also brings the Inheritance DLC for players to dive directly into, which I must highly discourage for newcomers. Not only is it much shorter and (I feel) inferior to the original story, it will be confusing and potentially full of spoilers if you haven’t at least gotten one of the endings of the predecessor. This is something where at least finishing the game once is essential for the big reveal of what has befallen everyone, and getting all three endings is surprisingly satisfying, though the “true” ending will require a lot more patience and exploration. Once you beat the first Layers of Fear, feel free to dive into Inheritance to see what comes from the Artist’s madness in the future. The Inheritance storyline is pretty compelling, I just think it’s weak compared to the first and, more importantly, not really a standalone experience.
Great horror games are like great scary stories: even if you know them by heart, you love to hear them again and again, and to share them with people who are unaware and eager. Layers of Fear: Legacy, is like hearing one of your favorite stories being told by Vincent Price or Christopher Walken. It’s a masterful presentation of a classic, and you become enraptured in a whole new way. For players who’ve already gone down this dark path, it might be a new and devilish experience with fresh eyes. And, for those who’ve never wandered the halls of this mansion, it’s the definitive way to see through the true lens of terror.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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