Bloober Team‘s first-person exploration game Layers of Fear 2 is a good start for diving into artful horror in our Halloween gaming special week.
An actor is cast to play the role of his life on an ocean liner, only to find out about the tragic past of its crew and passengers, while losing his grip on reality.
Disconnected from reality and art
The previous games Layers of Fear and its DLC Layers of Fear: Inheritance were primarily focused on domestic violence and took place in a haunted mansion, so having the sequel in a different setting with a seafaring theme is welcome. Connections to these games are slim so that one can play Layers of Fear 2 on its own without previous knowledge. The only theme that hold them together is the role of the artist, although in this case one doesn’t uncover the dark truth about a painter, but about an actor in the movie business.
Confusion in time and place
Following the storyline isn’t easy, because even if one picks up various objects that trigger echoes from the past, e.g. conversations, or reads various documents, e.g. newspaper clippings or scribbled notes, one will still be left with unanswered questions, resulting in a very confusing sudden ending. Learning about two kids who were stowaways on the same ship where the actor participated in shooting a new movie with a mysterious and very eccentric director might indicate a straightforward plot, but it’s not that suspenseful or intriguing.
Constant changes in the environment and no clear sense of time and space work for the creepiness of the setting, but also add to the bewilderment and confusion of the player. Building a character becomes the most important aspect of the story, but ironically one learns very little about the protagonist and even if one has a glimpse of what the children had to go through, one is still left with characters one is strangely detached from.
Playing different parts of the same story
The game feels as if aimed at multiple playthroughs, because after completing it for the first time, one unlocks a “New Game+” which offers the option to replay chapters/acts, therefore changing decisions, building a different kind of character and reaching different endings. This enables the player to find new story items or collect the ones one missed before, in addition to otherworldly secrets hidden across the ship. While this adds to replay value, having only one automatic savegame and often very obscure decision-making scenes evokes the feeling of being left out of the storytelling process without knowing it.
Tangible and intangible horror
Fusing horror with art requires some skill, and Bloober Team definitely hits the right notes with its design and storytelling techniques, not only because of the main idea of creating a character in a movie, but because of how scene compositions work. Disturbing imagery changes with art deco styles, and even if the turn-around-and-the-environment-changes format is less effective the more one plays the game, one still experiences many memorable set-pieces in which mannequins play a particularly creepy part the way they’re set up and suddenly move.
Granted, just as with Layers of Fear, there are way too many jump scares so that one feels to be on a slow-moving ghost train ride, especially since there is too much downtime in parts when nothing happens. But there are always some sequences that are downright unsettling, e.g. slides with distorted images one finds and plays on a projector, toying with fear of the unknown H.P. Lovecraft is known for. However, looking back and seeing the environment change again and again soon becomes less effective to scare the player, as it’s used too many times. This becomes very noticeable in Chapter 3 when one has to go through the same locations multiple times only to open another door that wasn’t accessible before.
The meaning of life and art, past and present future
The often poetic writing fits the artful presentation, although at times it also feels a bit pretentious with its philosophical statements about the human condition. The mix of theatrical performance, filmmaking, drama and creepy horror remains enticing, though, even if the script pretends to be more clever than it actually is. This can be seen in various collectibles, like posters that feel rather disconnected to the main storyline, while picking up items left behind by people on the ship doesn’t connect the narrative pieces in a more satisfying way. Getting one’s hands on audio boxes and listening to recordings again provides rather unsuccessful glimpses into the past, so that one is left with plot and character development that are so obscure that one won’t remember much afterwards.
The gameplay is a mix of exploration, puzzle solving, and light survival horror elements. Some of these elements work quite well, others not so much. One usually walks around each scenario, opens various doors, unlocks them with keys or returns to other areas that weren’t accessible before, which doesn’t make for an especially thrilling experience. Picking up narrative clues is usually optional and only puzzles are mandatory to progress. These are surprisingly varied and quite inventive due to their surreal solutions, although they can become frustrating and annoying.
For example, one looks through a keyhole to make out a shadowy silhouette which then has to be reproduced with various objects in the room. As it’s not possible to check the form again if one doesn’t remember it anymore and tinkering with a water tap, radio, or plant to create these images isn’t very logical, one is left clueless.
There are better examples, though, as one looks behind an object like a column and sees a door or a passageway that wasn’t there before, depending on which direction one looks, or one creates a door by browsing through movie slides or even switches between two alternative realities to interact with the environment and objects. Fortunately, one rarely wanders around without knowing what to do, as puzzles usually remain rather simple and locations remain small, which obviously adds to claustrophobia, too.
Surviving the dark
Survival horror elements are usually very annoying, as they require running through the ship, opening/closing/bolting doors and in some cases even ducking and evading steam. As the controls don’t include a jump button and one can easily get stuck on the environment, one experiences more frustration than fear when being chased by an entity that also feels tacked on to create more suspense and horror the story doesn’t quite manage to convey. There is an even worse sequence that tasks the player to run through a garden maze and hide from a beam of light that has a certain path to follow but which still seems to be somewhat erratic to appear around the next corner.
Presenting arthouse horror
The graphics offer detailed environments and a very effective play between lights and shadows, while the few characters one encounters look great as well. But it’s not only a great-looking game, as the sound design adds to the creepy atmosphere with scary noises, a moody soundtrack, and very good voice acting. Having Tony Todd (best-known from Candyman 1-3) as the director is the icing on the cake, with the rest of the cast doing an exceptional job, too.
The ship of recurring nightmares and gameplay
Layers of Fear 2 continues the tradition of its predecessor and DLC by providing arthouse horror that is reflected in its story and disturbing presentation. However, plot and character development remain obscure throughout the game, while the gameplay also drops in quality when it comes to trial-and-error sneak/escape sequences, with only the surreal puzzle design adding to variety. These can be avoided by turning off the failing option, but it still shows that the strength of storytelling and jumpscares alone doesn’t make a perfect game. However, this time Bloober Team has come pretty close to an experience that is unique enough to be played by film and horror game fans alike, especially with its great presentation, even though it’s not as accomplished as >observer_.
Buy the game for Xbox One on
the Xbox store
Buy the game for PS4 on
the PSN store