The scariest place on Earth is not some ancient crypt or a crumbling mansion with things that go bump in the night. No, it’s something that makes up two thirds of our planet that we cannot truly begin to understand. Vast beyond comprehension, nothing can make you feel as minuscule — like a drop in the ocean, as it were — as time spent aboard a ship out at sea. That’s why a desolate cruise ship is the perfect place for Layers of Fear 2 to drop you, which is, for my money, far scarier than any rickety old manor ever could be.
I’ve never tried to hide my disappointment with the first game, which I found to be a little too repetitive and cynically motivated for its own good, it favouring cheap scares as YouTube fodder when it should have simply done a better job at building tension and fleshing out its bones. While Layers of Fear 2 is still no oil painting and has some issues of its own, it represents a step up on all fronts from Bloober Team.
You play as an unnamed actor hired for an eccentric director’s mysterious project. Sadly, it’s not all canapés and cocaine for our protagonist as they seem to be all alone with nobody but mannequins and a formless shape of limbs for company. The plot thickens before long as you become familiar with the story of two stowaways, one older sister and her meek younger brother, as they play-act being pirates on the seven seas. This being a horror game, you can be assured that it does’t stay as innocent as Captain Spirit for long.
For those not familiar with the Layers “formula”, you are unarmed against psychological threats and must progress through constantly twisting environments that you cannot trust. Layers of Fear 2 does this even more impressively thanks to a significant engine upgrade, so you are now even less sure of when the rug will be swept from underneath you. Whether it’s suddenly floating apples or your entire perspective being flipped like a switch, Layers of Fear 2 is determined to utterly mess with your mind: The further into its depths you sink, the more morbidly irresistible it becomes. This is the inverse of what I find with almost all horror games, which tend to start strong before sputtering out. Like all good movies, Layers of Fear 2 is great throughout all of its acts.
Bloober seem to have learned how to be a bit more temperate with their scares this time out, it spacing out its innovative storytelling with panic-inducing chase sequences, which mostly feel earned. Reminiscent of Outlast 2 but better applied, these sequences are most effective the first few times, but as they don’t happen too often, they’re almost always a thrill when they do crop up — even if repeated failure does inevitably suck the tension right out of them. Thankfully, Layers has very favourable checkpointing so failure rarely gives way to much frustration. Though they can’t resist the temptation to chuck in some random loud noises and unwanted appearances, Layers of Fear 2’s scares generally feel more justified — and even more liable to make you screech.
There’s also more to proceedings than simply walking from room to room and waiting to be spooked or for the exposition to be doled out. The puzzles are complex while never being too perplexing, asking you to use clock hands (obviously made out of mannequin arms) to solve simple math problems or utilise water taps to make a shadow grow. Beyond that, Layers of Fear 2 also has a surprising sequence in which you control a spaceship, and several points where you use a projector to conjure a door in a wall. Your conventional horror sequel it ain’t.
Beyond the main attraction, which is being made to feel very alive while fearing for your life, it’s hard to resist the cinematic vision of Layers of Fear 2, which seems to be heavily inspired by the experimental (and quite barmy) mind of Georges Méliès. Almost every room or daunting area you walk into aboard the creaking and transforming liner is a screenshot waiting to happen, the composition of everything within designed to be picked apart and appreciated. There’s a lot of visual storytelling here that flies straight over my head, but those who can pick apart mise-en-scène will no doubt relish seeing rats around every corner.
Even completionists are well catered to here, Layers of Fear 2 offering a bunch of collectibles and secrets to discover. Though I’ve seen the credits roll, Steam tells me I have only ticked off 41% of its achievements, which makes sense when you consider that you can collect projector slides, phonograph interviews, and movie posters. You are also occasionally given multiple choice decisions to make at the behest of the director, so there’s certainly plenty for you to tuck into here than may first appear.
The real MVP of Layers of Fear 2, however, is its binaural audio, which is the best application of it I have heard since Hellblade. Tony Todd’s booming voice coming out of nowhere will often have you whipping around to see who’s there, so too will the constant creaks of the ship’s decrepit pipes and corridors. It’s a shame, then, that apart from Todd’s chilling delivery, the rest of the voicework here is as wooden as a ship’s plank. The young actors try their best, but whether it’s down to poor direction or inexperience, they can’t help but feel misplaced or out of sync with each other often.
Split across five distinct acts with different themes for each, Layers of Fears 2 is not an especially long game, it taking me just under five hours to see the credits roll. Unfortunately, my main gripe with the game comes from it not ending satisfactorily enough, it asking you to dive right back into a New Game+ to discover the truth and proper ending, not unlike the first game.
As captivating as I found Layers of Fear 2, I did not particularly fancy blundering through the mostly linear acts again immediately and just straight up guessing what I had to change to get the right ending. I might return when guides makes it less vague, but I am mostly content to leave it open-ended and to my own interpretation for now. The original game had you jump through many a hoop to get different endings, so I hope that isn’t the case here as well.
While Layers of Fear 2 might make a misstep in how it concludes, almost everything preceding is a horror joy and a significant improvement on its predecessor, it aptly adding more layers to the experience. How deep will you sink into madness?
Though its conclusion may perturb thanks to some obtuse storytelling, Layers of Fear 2's unconventional and artistic approach to horror make it a real gem of the genre.