Layers of Fear 2 Review
Dynamic, film-like horror that needed a few pacing adjustments
When it comes to horror, Bloober Team are a real class act and Layers of Fear 2 is another strong performance. The developers have already demonstrated their ability to effortlessly disturb and shock. Their previous game, Observer, was a brilliant mix of a tremendous sci-fi world with bizarre trips through the minds of the deranged. Before that, the original Layers of Fear was a tech demo of scares, taking players through a jumbled mansion as an artist tried to complete a painting. The sequel finds some middle ground between these two games, offering more narrative and trickling out the scares. Layers of Fear 2 is still about an artist trying to hone their craft—this time an actor becoming a character—and continues the good work of the developers, but a few pacing stumbles prevent it from being their pièce de résistance.
In this nightmare, not everything is shipshape
Players are dropped into the corridors of an ocean liner that appears to be taking on water. After stumbling through damaged bulkheads, you come across a cabin in pristine condition. Based on notes scattered around, it appears it is your cabin and you are a Hollywood actor that has come aboard this transatlantic ship to film a new movie. Those damaged corridors must have been part of the movie, or from a dream, or perhaps something more sinister. Your goal is simple but vague: become the character.
To become the character you will need to put a film reel on a projector and be transported into a world where everything outside your cabin makes little sense. For the most part, these early levels match ship interiors—cabins, corridors, crew quarters, and kitchens—but everything is jumbled. Here we get a first glimpse at the technical skill of the level designers. Their ability to render great-looking 1930s ship interiors will probably go unnoticed when they can twist them about with such ease. Corridors get blocked off, doorways are removed, and strange things happen.
In these early stages, the scares and twists are rather sparse and bland. Starting with rats scurrying into view and bottles rolling across the floor, it all begins too tamely for developers who have demonstrated such a high talent. Some of the early scares are ineffective too, either due to poor timing or misdirection. Even when a strange monster gives chase, it can actually get boring. Since everything is jumbled, there is no world to immerse yourself in like in Observer, so you’re just along for the ride.
This twisted home marks a turning point in the story
Still, art demands sacrifice and we must push forward. A director is there to guide you through the process of becoming a character, whatever it entails—walking through narrow hallways and solving the odd puzzle, mostly. Tony Todd voices the director and he talks about instinct and sacrifice. His deep voice sets a good tone which is not surprising given his role in numerous horror movies over the years. Unfortunately he talks mostly in riddles, making it hard for players to gain a foothold.
Thankfully the narrative finds its anchor in the form of two children: Lily and James. Notes and mementos throughout the jumbled levels reveal pieces of their story, often via audio snippets. The children are siblings pretending to be pirates in search of treasure. In actual fact, they are stowaways searching for food. Questions are raised: are they on the same ship or is this part of the upcoming movie? While the children’s play-acting is entertaining and pertinent, its true connection to the main story is obscured for a bit too long.
Eventually Lily and James’ back-story is exposed almost entirely in the third act (of five) as we explore their freakishly-represented childhood home and hear of their trials and tribulations. We learn of their parents, their dreams, and their close bond. The voice work for the children eclipses that of Tony Todd; both provide a great mix of fear, sadness, anger, defiance, and despair, helping to make their story the best part. It’s just a shame that this part of the tale is compressed and takes a while before it starts to make sense.
The road home is paved in scares
Bloober Team cranks the nightmare up to eleven after the children’s story takes shape. Levels go from weird to insane in the blink of an eye. Scares are more dramatic and confrontational. Even subtle things like doors closing have more weight because of how they are implemented in context. The best part of these later chapters is how effortlessly the game works with spatial dimensions; up becomes down and backwards becomes forwards. More things in the world move and the levels take on a life of their own.
Sometimes the levels take on the personality of movies, as the game implements many scenes from popular films. Cinephiles are in for a real treat, especially fans of the horror genre. The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, Se7en, and Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) all get a nod, although some are more abstract than others. Recreating iconic movie scenes builds anticipation as the game can put its own spin on climactic moments. Integrating these movies scenes into the game is ambitious and creative, without being disjointed, and they provide variety injections across the five hour journey.
If you want to get scared a second time and don’t have your bank statement handy, then there’s a New Game+ mode. It’s worth doing and not just so you can find all the picture slides, audio tapes, and movie posters that you missed. At various points in the story, you will need to make a binary choice that either obeys the director or defies him. These choices lead to a different ending and can alter levels and maybe expose another puzzle. Individual acts can be replayed from your cabin, should you only want to change one thing. The ending left some unanswered questions, in true horror fashion, although they may be uncovered by finding every scrap of narrative content.
There's always time for another horror game
Bloober Team’s proficiency with Unreal Engine 4 matches its high performance. The claustrophobic interiors run at a fast and consistent framerate. Even when the levels get big or strange, the engine ticks along without missing a beat. Perhaps the only let down is that some places have an abrupt loading spot, rather than streaming the next level. Also slightly annoying is the game’s tendency to smash the player with loud and prolonged sounds to terrorize. Thankfully both issues are infrequent.
When looking at the whole picture, Layers of Fear 2 is a decent horror title with a few pacing issues. It starts too slowly and vaguely. The early parts are also tame when it comes to scares and world presentation. But once the game dives into the story of the two children, Lily and James, it finds its horror groove. Levels are twisted delightfully, scares are sharper, and movie scenes provide a clever bit of variety without stealing the show. With better timing of both its nightmares and story, this sequel could have been a real star of the horror genre.