When Kojima’s P.T. was cancelled, survival horror fans were left lost and confused, forever wondering what could have been. But even though the promising new Silent Hill entry was lost, it inspired a number of “P.T.-likes” in the decade or so since, ushering in a new age of what some call “haunted house” horror games, a hybrid of survival horror and the walking sim genres. Some of the most well-known titles in this new subgenre are Team Bloober’s Layers of Fear 1 and 2, and while they only released a few years ago, 2023 saw the rather unexpected remaster of the two, in a new anthology also titled Layers of Fear.
I say remaster, but that word doesn’t quite cut it. The graphics have been upgraded, yes – in fact both games have been completely rebuilt from the ground up in Unreal Engine 5, and the new visuals blow the originals out of the water. But beyond just a new lick of paint, Layers of Fear makes some major alterations to core game mechanics and introduces brand-new chapters that tie together the stories more seamlessly. While the original releases of the first and second Layers of Fear games follow a troubled painter and actor respectively, these stories are now broken up with segments following a struggling writer, effectively filling in any narrative gaps that may have been present before. So perhaps ‘definitive edition’ is the best descriptor for this anthology, as it’s certainly hard to justify going back to the original 2016 and 2019 releases unless you’re a hardcore fan wanting to compare and contrast.
“Haunted house” is a pretty accurate genre descriptor – gameplay mostly involves walking around and soaking in the environment, with the occasional jump scare and puzzle to keep you invested as you slowly paint the picture of the artist, actor or writer’s dark past (pun very much intended). The horror and its presentation are very heavily influenced by the protagonists’ creative professions, and one thing cannot be disputed: visually, these games are a feast for the eyes, even more so in this new re-release.
Combined with the sound design, Layers of Fear is certainly one of the stronger examples of the genre, awash with symbolic and metaphorical narratives that will please those itching for another psychological horror experience akin to Silent Hill.
A strong emphasis is placed on how the story unravels and its execution over traditional, puzzle-focused progression as seen in survival horrors of old. That being said, one major gameplay change comes in the form of the lanterns. While before, you were powerless to fight back against the stalker enemies found lurking in the hallways, these lanterns now offer you a means of halting the enemy in their tracks, giving you a moment to recompose yourself or find a route to escape.
While this certainly would relieve the potential frustration of dying over and over again, I can’t help but feel it minimises the threatening atmosphere. Assuming you budget your lantern usage wisely, you always have a ways and means of escaping the only major threat in the game – so while it makes the overall package more accessible for all, more hardcore horror fans may find it ends up reducing the sense of urgency and panic during chase segments.
While the Layers of Fear entries are far from bad games – and this newly-released definitive edition certainly gives you some bang for your buck – it’s hard not to feel that they sometimes favour style over substance. I think it’s telling that, after having finished the anthology, I vividly remember the striking visuals and environments more than I do the stories and characters involved. Focusing on the woes of a painter and actor and twisting it into a haunting nightmare is a genius concept, but I can’t help but feel Layers of Fear underutilised this potential. Puzzles can be rather straightforward, jumpscares somewhat tired, and enemies aren’t terribly threatening. As a video game, it is rather simplistic, though perhaps this could be said of most haunted house horror games.
If you’ve never played these games before, like me, it’s a no-brainer to pick this up over the now-redundant original counterparts. But if you’ve already played the originals, not a whole ton has changed here. Hardcore fans may be drawn to the newly-added writer’s story, but if you had any qualms or complaints with the original experiences, you’ll likely feel the same this time around.
I couldn’t help but ponder on one thing as I was late to the party playing these titles: it is very clear that the Layers of Fear saga, perhaps regarded as Bloober’s staple releases, take very heavy inspiration from Silent Hill 2‘s psychological narrative. Now that I’ve played them and am left feeling entertained, but overall unimpressed, I can’t help but wonder what this could mean for their upcoming Silent Hill 2 Remake. Needlessly to say, they have their work cut out for them.
- Great visual upgrade over the originals
- Good bang for your buck with two full games, DLC and new chapters
- Unique visual design unlike your average horror game
- Sometimes wears its inspirations on its sleeve, leaving stories intriguing but unoriginal
- Altered mechanics could end up hindering the horror for some