The scene: Layers of Fear 2. Your motivation: discovering and, perhaps, accepting the tragedy of your past. You stand alone in a long hallway of a seemingly derelict ship. Glancing inside the various rooms, you see discarded clothes and belongings. It’s as if all the people just vanished. Around you are clues, forgotten artifacts whispering of a life deserted — then rebuilt, time and again. The ship sways and sighs as waves crash against its hull. Oh, be sure to listen to the director’s instructions, but you are free to improvise if the inspiration strikes you. And don’t worry about messing things up; you may get a second chance. Are you ready? Good.
The Layers of Fear games are all about good art gone bad. The original game placed you in the shoes of an alcoholic painter who stopped at nothing to create his magnum opus. In Layers of Fear 2, you take on the role of an actor, brought aboard the ocean liner Icarus Transatlantic. You’d be forgiven for believing that you’re there at the behest of your agent in order to shoot a big Hollywood production. The scattered film equipment and chalk marks on the floor you eventually find in various rooms would clue you in as such. However, not much time goes by before you realize there’s something terribly wrong.
Bumps in the dark
A horror game at its heart, Layers of Fear 2 ramps up the sense of dread slowly, but with purpose. It is, perhaps, the solitude that gets to you first. You walk through halls and rooms of the ship, with books and luggage scattered and forgotten. The isolation is oppressive. As the ship rocks lazily, its metal framework groans and creaks. You pass by a vase that drops to the floor as soon as it’s out of your vision. Was it the ship’s movement, or something else?
It doesn’t take long before the horror show starts firing on all cylinders. Shadows dance on the walls as doors open and slam without warning. After scouring a room for clues, you may leave only to find yourself transported to a place you don’t recognize. Color fades, shifting to black and white, or filtered through a sepia lens like an old-fashioned film. The world around you shifts and changes, taking you from the familiarity of the ocean liner to a pirate ship, or a field of leafless trees with gnarled branches. You cautiously walk up toward a hanging mannequin, which bursts into flames as the unseen director growls his taunts. Inky blackness later begins to surround you, as arms reach out to you from the walls.
Indeed, Layers of Fear 2 is frightening and surreal, but it’s beautiful. The game’s aesthetic is on full display, with gorgeous lighting and deep shadows. Every detail is meticulously crafted, from the peeling paint deep in the ship’s bowels to the dining areas with rich, mahogany wood. You can almost smell the brandy and burning tobacco.
Developer Bloober Team has proven its mastery over worldbuilding with Layers of Fear 2. The game’s atmosphere is oppressive, thick and suffocating. The dynamic environment feels like walking through a nightmare from which you can’t wake up. But just when you think you can’t take anymore, the turn of a door handle finds you back on the ship, with its calm, alabaster walls, swaying chandeliers, and crystal decanters.
A section of the ship itself acts as a sort of central hub, where items you collect, such as movie posters, are on kept. You can also listen to phonograph cylinder recordings, which provide more pieces to the story’s puzzle. But it does, if anything, put a break on the action, giving you a chance to breathe and take stock on your inventory. It is in this way that Layers of Fear 2 provides some excellent pacing throughout its story.
Despite its finesse at elevating your anxiety, Layers of Fear 2 doesn’t rely too heavily on cheap tactics. I’ve never been a fan of cheesy jump scares in horror games. Layers of Fear 2, thankfully, shares my disdain, at least somewhat. There are some jumps here and there, mostly from a shapeless creature that pops up every so often to chase you. But the game doesn’t lean on shouting “BOO” every five minutes, so that earns a vote from yours truly. Instead, it keeps you on the edge, fearing what may be around every corner or behind unlocked doors. Of course, some doors lead to a harmless bathroom (I flush basically every toilet I find in games as if it was a hobby).
However, I should say something about the mannequins. God, the mannequins. I haven’t been a fan of them since I screamed my way through the mall in Condemned. Here, mannequins are everywhere, which is just wonderful. They’re used as movie props or stand-ins for actors. Naturally, since this is a horror game, you expect them to start moving around at some point. They do, of course. Slowly at first, as if your mind only imagined the gentle motion. But later, as you get on a creaky elevator and turn to find six of the things — which weren’t there before — standing behind you restlessly wobbling, I won’t blame you if you squeal a little. I didn’t, though, because I’m tough, and you can’t prove otherwise.
Clues, not boos
However, while Layers of Fear 2 is a horror game, it’s not the really the scares that keep your gaze locked. Really, it’s the mystery behind the protagonist you guide through the story. And like the original game, you discover clues. They might be items like newspaper clippings, notes with hastily scrawled lines, or artifacts like a pirate hat or empty food can that verbally reenact scenes from his past.
The protagonist’s mind is shattered, and its pieces are strewn throughout the game, whispering for your attention. You gather them up in order to understand just how this pitiful man came to be. A horribly traumatic event is the usual suspect in stories such as this, and it’s the same in Layers of Fear 2. What exactly happened? How did the protagonist end up this way? Can he be redeemed? Those are the questions which your exploration serves to answer.
Of course, I wouldn’t dare spoil any of the story for Layers of Fear 2, which would be a crime. The story is not merely fascinating; it’s absolutely first-rate when it comes to horror games. Layers of Fear 2 dug its hooks into me quickly, and I found myself burning through its nearly six-hour length without much pause — excluding the times I stopped to flush every toilet. It really is that good. While I enjoyed the original game, Layers of Fear 2 went beyond my expectations, standing head and shoulders above its predecessor.
Square pegs, square holes
There are also some minor puzzles to solve as you progress. I say minor, because they honestly just exist to provide a brief pause in the momentum. In other words, none of these puzzles will stump you. Some puzzles involve numbers, while others “challenge” you to pull levers or press buttons. Even locked doors won’t impede you for long, as the keys to unlock them are usually close by.
At times, the game will present you with a choice in how to proceed. The mystery director, with a voice eerily like Dr. Claw, attempts to guide your actions. But you’re an actor, after all; some scenes demand improvisation. It’s unclear just how much your ending is affected by these choices. The one I received didn’t feel like the “bad” ending, but it was coherent enough to suggest that I missed some key steps. Luckily, for those who desire to fully solve the mystery, Layers of Fear 2 does have a New Game+ option, allowing you to restart with all the items you discovered in your first run.
Through a lens
Warning: Possible, minor spoilers ahead in this section.
The director in Layers of Fear 2 enjoys interrupting your travels to taunt you or wax philosophic — the latter, however, is not unusual. Philosophy and psychology are indeed prevailing themes of this game. Usually, it’s the director or a discovered movie reel extrapolating some philosophical quandary or another. However, the game, steeped in Hollywood tones, uses popular films and other media to provide insight.
I’ll admit though, at first it seemed somewhat out of place to suddenly come upon familiar movie sets. The game itself hints that you’re walking through the ship sometime in 1913, if a newspaper announcing the swear-in of Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States, is anything to go by. That made it feel a little anachronistic when I found myself reenacting scenes from Fight Club or Se7en. There even exists a bridge of light, ripped straight out of the joke from The Killing Joke, which was just a little too on the nose.
However, with more thought, I can sort of understand Bloober Team’s intentions. It’s not laziness, I feel, nor is it that the team merely desired to recreate settings from favorite pieces. Instead, I believe Bloober exhibited them to act as a cipher; a lens or metaphor through which you can better understand the fractured mind of the protagonist. Every example has a deeper meaning: illumination of the mind; the separation of self; or that we manifest what we perceive. The execution isn’t impeccable, of course. Regardless, you get a clearer image overall what kind of scars are engraved on the protagonist’s mind. More than one ghost haunts his thoughts.
As much as I enjoyed my time with Layers of Fear 2, it doesn’t come without its flaws. Yes, the puzzles are way too easy, and they can sometimes feel pointless. But it’s the aforementioned “monster” that stood out the most for me. You are chased on occasion by a shapeless creature through the various hallways. If you’re caught, you die instantly. Generally, I didn’t have a real beef with the mechanic at the start.
However, near the end, the creature pops up everywhere like an overachieving jack-in-the-box. It got aggravating very fast. By the umpteenth time I was snapped back to the game over screen, reading another quote on death (which began to repeat), I was getting frustrated. These are, however, minor gripes in what is overall a great game.
Layers of Fear 2 is not really a change in the formula. Rather, this is an evolution of it, going beyond its predecessor in every way. A fan of mysteries, I found the game’s story gripping and often emotional. The game is creepy, gorgeous, and captivating throughout. If I had any regrets, it’s that I didn’t find all the items during my exploration — an error I may just go back to fix.
The curtains have drawn. Bloober Team, stand up and take a bow.