2023’s Layers of Fear is one of the most confusingly marketed remakes of all time. From its original name (the fantastically terrible Layers of Fears) to it now sharing a name with the original game, it’s been a bit of an odd sell. In essence, the new Layers of Fear is an Unreal Engine 5 remake of all of the Layers of Fear content released so far, DLC and all, in one package with a new wraparound story that makes it into a connected anthology of stories revolving around a painting and its nefarious subject.
But is it a worthwhile compendium? Truthfully, it depends on how you feel about the original games, as they’re not terribly different minus a few welcome gameplay changes, and also just how much of this year’s bigger horror hits you’ve played. Having gobbled up everything that Resident Evil 4, Dead Space, and Amnesia: The Bunker have to offer, the Layers of Fear experience can’t help but feel like a product of a different time in the genre, but one that still has something interesting to say.
The slightly dated nature of Bloober’s influential psychological horror can probably be best seen in the original game, itself most obviously inspired by P.T. To say that it moves slowly would be an understatement, as I felt like I was cramping up from holding W and shift to very slightly walk faster. It’s such a hands-off game that it feels like you have pretty much no agency — you mostly press W, solve some basic puzzles, and get exposition dumped for around three hours. However, seemingly as a reaction to the walking simulator criticisms, Anshar and Bloober have added a flashlight this time out that allows you to repel vestiges of the painter’s wife. It’s not exactly like dealing with Nemesis, but it does added some much needed input to a game that would otherwise have very little.
Artistically, this story of a mentally unwell painter still packs a punch, with the Unreal Engine 5 makeover helping the mansion’s miserable decor and twisted transitions pop even more, especially with ray tracing enabled. This is a surprisingly well optimised early-UE5 game too, as I was able to consistently hit 120fps with ray tracing enabled and everything turned up to high. Even in the Final Note, a new, pretty solid DLC from the perspective of the painter’s wife, managed a consistently great performance despite the one million steel chain assets meant to signify her marital imprisonment. The DLC adds some more insight into the franchise’s most tragic character, though does feel somewhat empty in atmosphere compared to the main game.
Hopefully the second game’s inclusion here will make the general reception to it a bit more positive, as it’s a game that I’ve always felt had a lot more to offer than the original but hasn’t connected with an audience half as well. For one, it has an actual sprint button, so it’s immediately the better game. This story of an artist aboard a strangely desolate boat in the 1920s also has some of horror’s best aesthetics and scene composition, even if its narrative dependence on pretty much nothing but subtext and twists can make it feel a bit too much like theory-making fodder.
Just like the remake of the original game, Layers of Fear 2 also introduces a flashlight, though it does feel far more important here. Lighting up certain mannequins can move them out of the way and solve puzzles, adding much more player involvement. It can even be used to stop the mass of limbs that constantly chases you, too, meaning that Layers of Fear 2 just feels like a much more hands-on experience than the previous game. It will likely still be polarising even with this remake, but here’s hoping more people appreciate the differences brought to the table in this version.
Tying all of this together is a story involving a writer who finds herself at a mysterious lighthouse, as she seemingly looks to finish a new novel. It obviously isn’t long before things start going wrong and the walls start melting and being all weird — this is Layers of Fear, after all. For as interesting as this new wrap-around story is, also offering some welcome change if scenery when repetition sits in during the main stories, it doesn’t really feel all that substantial. There’s maybe half an hour of new content here in total, and while there are a couple of really excellent scene transitions, any attempts at scares fall completely flat.
In truth, the whole of this package barely spooked me, perhaps because I’d already seen it all before. However, once you get used to Bloober’s bag of tricks (sudden audio quieting for a jumpscare, the scene being different when you turn around, open doors dramatically closing), it can all become a bit predictable, if not tedious. It’s hard to not feel like you’re playing a walking sim with the occasional loud noise to make sure you’re paying attention sometimes, with the game(s) struggling to add any sense of stakes. Well, apart from in the first game, where death means having to very slowly walk back to where you previously were.
However, I’d say this complete version of Layers of Fear is still worth experiencing, if for nothing but to experience its deep themes and narrative layers, as well as some of its grimly gorgeous environments. If you already played the original games, there may not be quite enough here for you to put up with the glacial pacing and relative lack of input all over again, but for brand new players who want to experience the genre at its most artistic, this is a worthwhile tapestry of late 2010s horror.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Layers of Fear 2023 really isn't the most necessary remake ever and those who didn't like the original games certainly won't be converted, but this is a pretty compelling package for psychological horror fans.
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