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Layers of Fear review: An unsettling subversion of expectations

Hayden Dingman | Feb. 22, 2016
Layers of Fear masterfully toys with your sense of reality, when it's not throwing cheesy jump scares in your face.

Layers of Fear

Imagine these Bob Dylan lyrics sung by a creepy children’s choir, or maybe a choir of dolls, and you’ve basically got the gist of Layers of Fear:

Train wheels runnin’ through the back of my memory/As the daylight hours do retreat/Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody/When I paint my masterpiece.

Point being, you’re a painter. An insane painter, an alcoholic and abusive husband, a terrible father, a man possessed by demons. A modern-day Caravaggio or Goya. Bob Ross without his friendly afro. And all you want to do is paint, if the damn rats would just leave you alone.

Suffer for your sanity

Layers of Fear is a horror game, in theory. Which brings us to today’s topic of discussion: Can a horror game can be successful if it never manages to scare? This discussion rarely arises, given that the horror genre—especially in games, though also somewhat in film—exists largely in the realm of shock value, in leaving us terrified to walk to the bathroom at night without flipping at least one light on.

And if that’s the goal with Layers of Fear, then I’d say it fails. It’s not particularly scary.

Oh, it tries. The game is full of horror genre cliches, from dolls to rats to creaking floorboards to thunderstorms to more dolls. The gimmick/hook is that you’re an insane painter, so the parade of tropes is occasionally broken by a room full of spilled paints or what have you, but by and large Layers of Fear is content to deal in well-trod imagery.

And there’s a methodical repetition to its jump-scares, a disturbing proclivity for lowest-common-denominator YouTube fodder—the stuff of high-pitched screaming Let’s Plays. A light explodes! A lady screams in your face! A ceiling fan embeds itself in a wall! These are the most traditionally “scary” moments in Layers of Fear, and also the worst moments in large part thanks to an unwillingness to subvert your expectations.

The game has a rhythm. If it’s been more than a minute since the game’s tried to nab you with a need-new-pants screamer, it’s guaranteed to happen soon. If it’s been more than five minutes...well, that never happens.

The irony being that Layers of Fear is a game built on subverting expectations, in every way except for these stupid jump scares.

So let’s say we can find merit in a horror game that’s not scary. You don’t have to agree, and if you don’t then I suggest you stop reading because Layers of Fear is “Not For You.” But for the sake of argument.


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