Layers of Fear: A Terrifying Experience

Layers of Fear: A Terrifying Experience

This may not come as much of a surprise to you, dear readers, but I’m something of a scaredy-cat. For me to willingly attempt to complete a horror game, let alone stream it for an audience to enjoy, is something of a rarity, so much so that I only ever break out the horror games for special occasions. Like raising funds for charity and including my playing them as donation incentives.

This is basically why I’m going to be playing eight whole horror games this year, which is a record for me.

The first of these games was Layers of Fear, a game I’ve actually had in my Steam library since its release. I had seen part of it played once, but had never really attempted to play through it, myself, until recently. This year, though, it just felt right to add it to the list of games to play.

A screenshot from Layers of Fear depicting an art studio that is absolutely covered in various colors of paint. In the foreground is an easel with a canvas on it, the canvas itself covered by a white cloth. A small table sits next to it, the surface covered in paint brushes (some in a can, others not), tubes of paint, and a painter's palette.

I completed playing this game this past weekend, and somehow, it was nothing I was expecting it to be.

I think I was expecting a horror game in what is perhaps more of a classical style with monsters and jump scares, and while there certainly were more than a few jump scares, I was surprised to find no monsters save for a few ghosts who caused me no real harm alongside a surprisingly ordinary monster.

(Please note that from this point on, there will be spoilers. If you intend to play this game yourself, you may want to avoid the rest of this post.)

Released in 2016, Layers of Fear is a first-person perspective horror game in which players take on the role of a painter returning to his home and studio to complete his masterpiece.

The only instruction we’re given when we begin is “finish it.” Finish what? And who is the individual we’re playing as?

A screenshot from Layers of Fear depicting a piece of aged lined paper that was once full of text, but with words missing. The only words visible are "Lost. You deserve it. FINISH IT."

Well, we mainly need to work this out for ourselves.

At first, things begin simply enough. You wander through the house with no real direction, exploring as you attempt to find the key that unlocks the painter’s studio door. However, the second you make your way into that studio and attempt to leave it again, the world outside the room is nothing like it was when you went in there and what follows feels like you’re traveling through the painter’s own psyche as we figure out what happened to him before this moment in his life.

Each trip outside the studio helps us learn a little more about the painter’s past which is full of horrifying secrets that we glean through scraps of letters or newspaper clippings and items that trigger flashes of dialogue that unveil just a little more about the man and his life.

Many of them show just how ordinary his life was. His art showed in galleries. He fell in love with a musician and married her. He even painted her on several occasions. They had a child together.

A screenshot from Layers of Fear depicting a silver engagement ring with a blue stone. Included is a subtitle that reads, "The thought alone that the most beautiful piece of art doesn't have my name on it is killing me."

But even seemingly ordinary people can be monstrous, a fact that Layers of Fear reminds us of as the game progresses. We learn of arguments between him and his wife that the neighbors could hear. We open closets and trunks full of nothing but bottles of wine and alcohol, many of them appearing as shattered bottles on the floor, all of which imply the painter was an alcoholic. We even realize how obsessed and far gone the painter truly is as he attempts to complete this masterpiece.

And like many other reviewers, I found myself becoming horrified by the character I was playing. What had, in the beginning, seemed a bit innocent turned into something disturbing by the end of the first chapter alone given what we learn he utilized for the canvas for his masterpiece (and it just gets worse from there). I found myself scared to find out what exactly he had done as the game progressed. It made playing as this character an incredibly uncomfortable experience.

Equally tricky to contend with was the house itself which almost felt like its own character as you wandered through it. While it doesn’t do much to you and seemingly changes in correspondence with the painter’s mental state, the house and its ghosts do their best to spook the hell out of you.

And they succeed on numerous occasions.

Paint streaks across walls. Paintings, all of which were presumably cherished by the painter, often change and warp. Doors shut and lock behind you or change, voices whisper to you as you uncover certain objects, and the hallways rearrange themselves when your back is turned to the point where it disorients not only the painter but you as a player, making it difficult to trust your own perception of the world around you.

I had more than a few occasions where I would look away from something and turn back towards the door I had entered the room from only to find that door gone and a new one had materialized in another location in the room.

There were several instances when the ghost of a woman whom I can only assume was the painter’s wife would lunge towards me or I’d notice text telling me not to look back, and I’d not heed that to find her right behind me.

A screenshot from Layers of Fear depicting a hallway with wood paneling and wooden floorboards. Colorful aint is haphazardly splattered across the walls, the floors, and the ceiling. Some black paint is streaked along the floorboards, leading into the darkened end of the hallway.

I played this game over the course of two three-hour-long sessions, and I found the scares to be a bit more effective the first day. Two moments notably stood out to me: (1) turning around at one point to discover the furniture all assembled into horrifying stack floating behind me and before seemingly flinging themselves to the farthest corners of the room, and (2) entering a room and closing the door behind me only to hear footsteps outside and someone rattling the door as they attempted to come inside before wandering off.

As the game progressed, however, I found myself becoming a bit desensitized to some aspects of it. I had seen enough bottles of alcohol over the course of gameplay to mostly sit there and utter something akin to “why am I not surprised?” each time I’d see a group of them by the end of it. And there are only so many times all light sources can extinguish themselves before you learn to brace yourself for something coming.

I found the scares absolutely more effective when there were things I couldn’t see coming or when they introduced something new. As an example, there’s a scare that plays out in the daughter’s bedroom after you find a key to a music box that made you spin along with it, aspects of the room shifting around you as toys come to life and go haywire while you’re spinning so aspects of the room look completely different until you come to a stop and everything is seemingly normal again. While the room changing was a bit predictable, when combined with everything else, I found it surprisingly effective and disturbing.

A screenshot from Layers of Fear. "Get it right this time" has been written in black paint over a door frame

That’s not to say that some of the more repetitive scares diminish from the overall effectiveness of the game, of course. In fact, as a whole, the game itself is probably one of the more effective horror experiences I’ve had thus far. From the ordinary monster of our protagonist to the ever-present one that is his own psyche and the ghosts he’s haunted by, everything comes together to create a uniquely layered horror experience.

I will admit that by the end, I was so horrified that all I could really say about Layers of Fear was that it “certainly is a game,” but having taken a few days to try to compose my thoughts about it, I think I’d consider it more of a psychological horror experience that I don’t think I was prepared for whatsoever. I’m not sure it has much in the way of replay value (even given the fact that there are apparently three different endings you could get that depend entirely on your own actions), but I don’t think I’m going to be forgetting about this one any time soon.

If this sounds like your kind of thing, you can pick up Layers of Fear on Steam, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.

One thought on “Layers of Fear: A Terrifying Experience

  1. I know I own this on Steam and I’ve meant to get around to playing it. It’s on my list – good to know that it’s an impactful experience! (Sorry, I sorta skimmed so that I didn’t get any spoilers.) Thanks for the review!

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