There aren’t many video games I would consider attempts at fine art. Many modern games, particularly big budget titles, are undeniably massive edifices constructed of sometimes thousands of art assets, toiled away on by dozens of talented painters, modelers, musicians and digital cinematographers. Games certainly are built of art, huge quantities and varieties of art, but there are few studios that relentlessly pursue a central thematic element through abstract symbolism. Much less in a horror game.
Polish studio Bloober Team is one of those rare developers that tackles a horror game as if it were an avant-garde production. I missed out on their freshman effort, the original Layers of Fear, but I was duly impressed (and freaked out) by their mind-sifting cyberpunk masterpiece _Observer, which made me eager to jump into their latest game, Layers of Fear 2. If you’re new to Bloober’s horror series like me, beware: this studio is out to bend your mind, make you jump out of your chair, and impart some truly disturbing concepts and images to you.
The story to Layers of Fear 2 is a bit difficult to get a handle on, as the game dumps you right into it with very little context. You wake up on a massive cruise ship early in the 20th century, and from clues gleaned from your opulent quarters you ascertain that you are a stage actor of some renown. You are onboard this vessel to develop your method for playing the role of a lifetime; it’s so important that the ship’s crew have strict orders to leave you and the rest of the production the hell alone. It’s hinted early on that you might be more than a touch unhinged, which is why you got the part but also why most of the people around you are a little freaked out.
As you begin to explore the ship, you encounter a side-story to your magnificent performance by examining curios, clues, letters, hastily-scrawled notes and newspaper clippings. It turns out the ship has two stowaways; a young girl named Lily and her even younger brother James, who are playing a game of pirate and having fun eluding the guards. However, as you press on through your investigation, it becomes clear that the ship’s crew does not take kindly to the stowaways. The captain puts all food onboard under lock and key, and the two hapless children begin to starve as they desperately scrounge for something to eat. Even worse, something horrible is loose on the ship—some kind of awful, twisted phantasm—that hunts you relentlessly and kills you on sight. There seems to be some kind of narrator giving you hints about your role in what is clearly a travesty. Played with subtle distain and gravity by the legendary Tony Todd of Star Trek and Candyman fame, his signature gravelly voice intones about choice, pain, loss, death and rebirth.
All of this narrative is pretty abstract. You’re not sure if you’re dreaming, hallucinating, reliving the life chapters of dead people or actually stumbling about with amnesia. It’s all quite vague as you roam the corridors of this massive vessel, which imparted an unpleasant aftertaste of walking simulator “isn’t this so artful?” pretense that put me off at first. But make no mistake; Layers of Fear 2 is not a walking simulator. It doesn’t have the most challenging or intensive gameplay, but this isn’t a stodgy guided tour of somebody’s graduate philosophy thesis or a drawn-out political lecture. Layers of Fear 2 is a genuine horror experience that will perplex your senses and, after a slow-burn opening, scare the daylights out of you.
Gameplay primarily consists of pushing forward through a series of the ship’s rooms and corridors, examining clues and doing some light puzzle solving along the way. The level design is fairly linear, but if you wander off the beaten path occasionally you’ll find slides, movie posters and other items that can be viewed back in your quarters after you complete a chapter. About halfway through the first chapter, a terrifying, distorted specter will occasionally find and pursue you. These brief chase sequences really get the blood pumping as you scramble through mazes, slamming doors behind you and trying to find the right way forward before the ghost catches and murders you. These are scripted events but on your first playthrough you have no idea when it will happen, and sometimes investigating the wrong piece of curious scenery will bring the monster down on you, so it lends a palpable sense of unease to the whole game.
The gameplay element in Layers of Fear 2 is admittedly light, but it’s how Bloober Team expertly unwinds their story that gives this game its punch. The symbolism here is thick but somehow graceful. Most everything relates back to themes of nautical exploration, filmmaking or stage performance. Most light sources come from blinding stage lamps; tenuous hallucinations are portrayed through scratchy film grain; and uncanny figure reference mannequins haunt you throughout the experience, portraying all manner of unsettling scenes and concepts. The theme of looking, or being perceived, is all over this game, with holes cut into walls giving you a voyeuristic perspective on things you’d probably prefer not to see. This game gets its ideas across with considerable force, but also with enough grace and ambiguity to keep you unnerved.
And damn, does Bloober Team still know how to unnerve. There are sequences in this game that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. They’ve taken the cheap “blink and you’ll miss it” jump scares from movies like The Conjuring and turned them into something truly scary. I don’t want to spoil anything but this is one game where you really have to watch the corners of your eyes, but that’s not even the worst part. There was one element that always got me. Occasionally you’ll happen upon slide projectors, which you can cycle back and forth between various images. These usually start out as something innocuous, like a nature shot of a buck or a frame-by-frame of a child playing, but invariably sequence into something distorted and awful. One of these cycles had a single slide of a door standing in the middle of a field; I approached the wall that the projector was shining onto, and the door melted into existence.
After playing Observer, I was expecting this kind of psychological manipulation in a Bloober Team game. The difference was that Observer had a very concrete, science fiction framing story. Yes you were diving into the incredibly messed up brains of drug-addled cyborgs living in a dystopian nightmare, but in the back of your mind you knew you were still you, and you were merely experiencing someone else’s hallucinations. That grounded the story and kept things (relatively) easy to process. You also had the additional gameplay layer of managing Daniel Lazarski’s sync level and investigating murder mysteries to keep you tethered to the real world.
Layers of Fear 2 is a far more abstract, and straightforward affair. There is no solid narrative framework to keep you grounded, or extraneous gameplay to distract you from the increasingly disturbing horror story drawing you in. You have no choice but to constantly press forward as the game assaults you with nightmare visions, guilt trips and the voices of two kids as they become increasingly desperate, slowly starving to death as they wander the claustrophobic bowls of an ever-more-hostile ship at sea.
This is art house horror at its best. Bloober Team clearly had a yarn to unwind and they’ve been saving up their best symbolic storytelling for their third game. There is very little extraneous content here; Layers of Fear 2 is a narrative heavy game that doesn’t distract with busywork, fetch-questing or needless repetition. But if you’re looking for a good scare with some complex themes holding it up, this game will chill your spine and haunt you for weeks after the credits roll.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.
I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Columbus, Ohio with my fiancee and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do.View Profile