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Layers of Fear 2 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Swaying of ship creates false perception of movement
  • Stop motion effects
  • Restrained use of jump scares makes the few more effective
  • A little more varied than first game

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Plot is difficult to understand
  • Cheap insta-deaths
  • Pathetically easy "puzzles"
  • Weak "moral" choices
  • Too easy to get a meaningless non-ending
  • Hard to navigate in monochrome hard shadows
  • Technical issues

Overall Impression : D+
Not scary or thought-provoking

Layers of Fear 2 - cover

Developer:
Bloober Team

Publisher:
Gun Media

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam or Epic Store),
PlayStation 4 (via PSN digital download),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
28 May 2019

Genre:
first-person horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
5-6 hours

ESRB Rating: N/A:
MegaBearsFan's Parental Rating: Mature players only, because of:
depictions of death, murder, and suicide.

Official site:
layersoffear2.com/

I played the first Layers Of Fear a couple years ago (just prior to the release of Blair Witch). I didn't bother reviewing it at the time because

  1. The game had been out for years, so I didn't think there was much desire for a late review, and
  2. I honestly didn't know what to make of it at the time.

I wasn't sure if it was an auteur masterpiece, or a boring walking simulator. As time has gone on, and I've played other "walking simulators" that I've enjoyed much more, I've leaned further and further towards the later. In either case, I didn't find the game particularly scary. I was skeptical to bother with the sequel, but I liked Blair Witch just enough to pick up Layers Of Fear 2 on a Steam sale. I think I might have actually liked the first game better. I found it much easier to follow along with what was happening in the first game, and its simpler, more streamlined gameplay (and shorter length) made it less tedious.

Most of the game is walking through a door into a room, looking at what's in the room,
then walking out the same door into a different room or hallway than the one you came in from.

Pretty much the whole of Layers Of Fear 2 is still just walking into a room, looking at what's in the room (often some weak jump scare), then turning around and walking out the same door into a different place than where you came from. It's the exact same stuff as the first Layers of Fear and the last couple hours of Blair Witch, but without feeling like a novel technical accomplishment. Blair Witch at least had the forest setting to play up the idea of being lost in the dark, and also had some more varied and unique puzzles and set pieces. Though to Layers Of Fear 2's credit, it doesn't repeat the same gags over and over again the way that the first game does, and more of the rooms have atmospheric set decorations to help establish a mood, instead of every one having some silly jump scare. So the sequel is a bit more restrained in that respect.

I have no idea where I am on this ship,
or where I've been.

Both the first Layers Of Fear and Blair Witch also do a slightly better job of establishing a sense of place before the reality-warping effects start happening. Having a little bit of time to explore a relatively normal house or forest makes the surreal environments more jarring. Layers Of Fear 2 pretty much just jumps right into it, never giving the player an opportunity to get a feel for how the ship is structured, where you are on the ship, or where you are trying to go. Right from the start, you're meandering through abstract corridors.

Auteur direction

Both Layers Of Fear games have some slight exploration and secret-hunting, so they are more than just walking through a sequence of linear corridors and rooms, finding notes and listening to narration voice-overs. But not much more. Heck, for much of the first act of Layers Of Fear 2, you are expected to literally follow a line painted on the floor. Deviating from the required path may yield secret collectibles and extra story details, but it doesn't influence the outcome of the game or change the endings. While the first game asked the player to fixate on the past or to somehow move forward by ignoring the past; this sequel is more about character agency. Or at least, I think it is. I honestly had almost no clue what the heck was supposed to have been going on when the credits were rolling, and I had to look up the achievement list and alternate endings to get a better idea of what the game might have been trying to communicate.

The player has a certain degree of agency to follow along with the director's increasingly absurd directions.

The framing device is that you are playing as an eccentric actor, cast in a movie by an eccentric, auteur director. This director gives strange instruction in the form of a narrative voice-over, and the player has the option to either follow the directions or ignore them. It kind of reminded me a bit of The Stanley Parable, but not as clever, in large part because everything seems so abstract and metaphorical that there's no concrete sense of consequence for your actions.

These choices of whether to follow the director's instructions or ignore them are layered and nuanced in their concepts, but not so much in their execution. Each one is framed as a sort of moral conundrum. You're told by the director to do something that feels morally wrong, and are left wondering "is this for real? Or is it just part of the magic of movie-making?" Or at least that's the idea. In actual execution, you usually have a choice between doing the morally wrong thing that you are told to do, or be insubordinate and do a different, morally wrong thing for no reason at all.

[Show Minor Spoiler] [Hide Spoiler]

The best example of this is actually the very first such choice, which I thought was so clumsily executed, that it caused me to not really take the later choices very seriously. The first act concludes with being asked to pick up a pistol and shoot one of two mannequins (which, I suppose are supposed to represent other [living] actors). The pistol is presented to you by the director as a prop gun, loaded only with powder and no actual ammunition. However, a few rooms prior, you can find a half-hidden note that implies that the director secretly had the stagehands load the gun with live powder and an actual bullet.

The choice of who to shoot is framed as though it might be some kind of moral decision. Follow the director's instructions and risk killing a fellow actor (or stunt double, or whatever) with live ammunition, or take the moral high road and refuse the director's blatantly irresponsible and dangerous instructions. The problem is that there is no actual moral choice. You have to chose to shoot either the male dummy on the left or the female dummy on the right. You cannot fire the pistol into the air or at the ground. You also can't simply delay and hope that the director will give up and let you off the hook. Either way, you are shooting (and potentially killing) someone, so why wouldn't you simply shoot the dummy you are instructed to shoot, other than to be insubordinate for the sake of it? I mean, they are both motionless mannequins, after all.

A false moral choice to follow instructions and shoot one actor, or ignore instructions and shoot the other.

I think a better way to frame this decision would maybe be to have a single dummy, and the director asks you to shoot it square in the chest. But knowing that you might actually have live ammunition loaded into the pistol should allow you to opt instead to take a less lethal shot at the dummy's arm or leg. This way, you're still taking a harmful action, but there's more of a pull between following the director's commands and taking a moral stand.

The later choices are a bit more interesting because they usually do have some additional layer of consideration. In some cases, it might be a sense of justice, or it might be an illusion of personal threat. Following the director's instructions may go against the player's sense of justice or self-preservation. Unfortunately, if you follow instructions in the first pistol choice, and then ignore instructions to do the seemingly safer choice (as I did), you end up getting a limp, meaningless, and utterly non-sensical non-ending that basically tells you to "try again" -- by which it means, "replay the entire game and make better decisions." I was ... not impressed.

Point of no return

The big problem that I have with both games (and to an extent, Blair Witch) is how arbitrary and random everything is. The highly abstract and metaphorical nature of what's on screen, the constant reshaping of the world geography, and the frequent points of no return (often without warning), makes it exceedingly difficult to fully explore certain areas or evaluate decisions, even if you are going out of your way to try. Opening the wrong door can lead to a new setpiece, with no way to go back (short of replaying the entire game or entire act), and it's often not entirely obvious which path leads to an optional reward, and which path will push you forward to the next set piece and lock you out of returning to said reward.

The hard shadows and frequent shift to a monochrome color palette don't help. While it looks fine from an aesthetic standpoint, I found the monochrome environments to be difficult to navigate. I recommend turning the gamma up a bit higher than what the game recommends. It will look a lot more washed-out, but at least you'll be able to see where the heck you are going and what is happening.

Stop motion monsters

There are other aesthetic decision that I thought worked out quite well. The game is set on a passenger cruise liner, and there's a slight sway to the camera to represent the swaying of the ship on the ocean. In the dimly-lit rooms and corridors of the early game, this had the effect of tricking my eyes into thinking that I was seeing motion (especially in the periphery of the screen), even when everything is standing still. This creates a certain degree of tension and insecurity (good things for a horror game to have), up until I became desensitized to it, and learned how the game actually presents the real threats (more on that in a bit).

The game takes place on a ship at sea.
The swaying of the ship with the waves creates a false sense of movement that builds early tension.

I also thought that the stop motion effect of some of the animation looked really neat and unnerving. These effects were employed for some of the game's more effective jump scares. I especially like that this effect was achieved without needing to actually strobe a light. I don't get seizures (thankfully), but strobing effects do sometimes give me migraines. There are some strobing effects in the game, but they weren't prominent enough to bother me, and there is an epilepsy / seizure warning when the game boots up).

Press tab to view your "inventory"
of key items and collectibles.

As for the aforementioned threats: yes, there is actually danger and a risk of death this time around, including several different environmental hazards and a monster that chases you for an instant kill on contact. You simply have to turn around and run away, or (in at least one case) lock yourself in a room and wait for it to go away. The monster only shows up at certain scripted set pieces, so this isn't a procedural pursuit like in Amnesia or Alien: Isolation or the original Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. The other threats in the game are resolved by timing your dashes from cover to cover, or else get instantly killed. There's no inventory management or health system or combat of any kind.

I don't mind the lack of traditional video game threats or combat, but I don't particularly care for the insta-kill nature of the threats in games like this. Death often comes off as cheap or undeserved, and it only serves to pad out the play-time by forcing the player to have to repeat brief segments of trial-and-error gameplay over and over until you get it right. Bloober might even agree, which is why they didn't include a threat of death in the first Layers of Fear at all, and why the sequel includes an option to disable the monster entirely.

There is an insta-kill monster that occasionally pops up out of nowhere to chase you.

Personally, I'd rather not have monsters at all if this is the way they're going to be implemented. I'd much rather that the principle challenge be exploration and puzzle-solving, but that, unfortunately is an area where Layers Of Fear 2 also falters. Puzzles in this game are overly simple. Bloober Team just gives you the solution to most of them. If there's a combination lock, the solution is probably written on the wall behind you.

I did get stuck on the very first combination lock puzzle -- but not because it was hard to solve. The game gave me the combination three times, including taping it onto the front of the safe itself. The issue wasn't that I didn't know the combo; the issue was that I held the mouse button down and turned the dial, and the safe never opened. I had to go online to find out that I needed to release the mouse button at each number; otherwise, the game didn't recognize that I was putting in the correct combo.

There were three puzzles in the entire game that required more thought or effort than simply finding the answer written in the environment. One of which simply requires the player to do some simple arithmetic. The other is basically just rotating some disks in order to match up the shapes on the disks. The third could have been a good puzzle, if not for the fact that there's only one possible interaction at each step of the puzzle, so no thought is required to actually solve it. Being a veteran of the classic survival horror games with their difficult riddles and inventory-management puzzles, I found the puzzles in both Layers Of Fear to be insultingly simple.

You don't have to be Einstein to solve this game's puzzles.

Other "puzzles" involved simply finding the one item in the room that I can interact with in order to trigger a door to appear so that I can leave the room. For example, turning a phonograph crank, or plugging a power cable into the electric outlet that is right under the button that needs to be pressed. Again, none of it is rocket science. I had to wonder if these puzzles were designed for VR and motion controls, but as far as I can tell, the game does not have official support for VR. So much for that idea.

A relic of the horror walking sim fad

Having just come off of both Visage and Amnesia: Rebirth (and having played a bit of Phasmophobia), I just didn't find Layers Of Fear 2 to be particularly compelling. With games like Visage and Amnesia: Rebirth introducing more complex systems and puzzles back into indie horror games (and Phasmophobia being entirely system-based), Bloober Team's effort comes across as more of a dated relic of the days when horror walking sims were all the rage. Maybe that's not entirely fair, considering that Layers Of Fear 2 was released back in 2019 (more than a year before either Visage or Rebirth). It's not Bloober's fault that I'm only getting around to playing their games after other companies have already moved the genre forward.

Nevertheless, I didn't think that Layers Of Fear 2 was particularly scary. It got me to jump with a few of its jump scares, but the atmosphere just didn't work for me, nor did I find the story or "moral" decisions to be very disturbing or thought-provoking. It's a well put together game, with high production value and mostly solid technical capabilities. I had a couple of crashes to desktop, and the game always took a couple minutes to launch in Steam (for some reason), but it otherwise has great visual and sound design. It just didn't work for me.

Sorry Bloober; you're no Stanley Kubrick.

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