Perfecting psychological horror is an impossible task. You can land on an idea, a story, that plays on your fears, presenting those fears as reality that you should be running from, should be terrified of. Or you can land on the opposite side of that scale, where the fear you are presenting isn’t fear at all, it’s the bizarre, the wacky, and the weird. Those three things often don’t amount to anything more than that. Bloober Team’s Layers of Fear 2 sits in an awkward spot between these two states of psychological horror, with some parts coming so close to perfecting the aforementioned ‘impossible task’, and others straying so far from horror and into generic video game tropes which threaten to spoil an otherwise successful jaunt into madness.
Layers of Fear 2 sees you take control of an actor, playing the lead role in a film aboard a cruise liner, think Peter Jackson’s 2005 seminal work, King Kong. Or don’t, there are actually very few similarities. The game’s opening is spectacularly muted, from title screen to full control in an eerie corridor with a jolt. That may seem like a criticism, but it’s just one of the ways that the game plays with your expectations. Following this abrupt start you’ll find your cabin and it quickly becomes apparent that everything is very much not as it seems, with madness seeping into every second spent aboard the ship from that moment on. You soon hear the fear-inducing, booming voice of the film’s director, a voice that will accompany you on the 5-chapter, 8-hour journey through hell and back.
There are many layers to the game’s narrative, with a few story-arcs that weave in-and-out of one another. The primary arc follows two children, Lily and James, who once roamed the corridors of the ship, playing pirates and getting up to mischief. Their story is told intermittently as you progress and by picking up objects in the environments, like tin cans and their own drawings. These objects trigger short, but fantastically written and voiced audio logs of the two children speaking to each other, playing, and hiding from the ship’s crew. These audio logs and the endless notes you’ll find around the world are the primary narrative driver in Layers of Fear 2 and are easily my favourite part of a horror title trying to do things differently. This is not a reflection on the quality of the rest of the game, but simply astonishment at just how great the world building and storytelling is when funnelled through these intimate plot devices. Almost every note or audio log captivated me in a way that few games have when using the same narrative devices. They construct a vivid, dire world with very little; some of the notes you’ll read will shock you, forcing you to keep playing to find out more. It’s a fascinating accomplishment by Bloober Team, to create such an arresting breadcrumb trail of story beats throughout the entire game. Though if you are someone who is a little impatient and know you won’t spend the time reading or listening to what you find in the world, then I would steer clear of Layers of Fear 2, because skipping the exploration effectively means skipping much of the story.
The story is largely left up to the imagination of the player. When the credits roll, you’ll almost definitely be left thinking “what on earth did that mean?”, but the story, and its three alternate endings, are abstract enough that the player can interpret it in the way they want. This can often feel like a cop-out from a storytelling perspective, but it works in Layers of Fear 2. I do wish there was a slightly more conclusive ending for my character though, that tied up and clarified a few more of the loose ends I was looking for answers to. Saying that, the fan theories are fantastic to dive into as an added bonus. The aforementioned alternate endings are decided by a few choices you make throughout the game, all of which involve the mysterious director in a way I won’t spoil here. It’s fun to make these choices, but they’re not entirely reflected in the endings, not in any obvious way.
Layers of Fear 2 shines in its writing and construction of the world, but its gameplay and the environments you explore provide some spectacular moments too. Just as the first Layers of Fear was, its sequel is heavily inspired by P.T., the terrifying demo for Hideo Kojima’s cancelled Silent Hills game. Layers of Fear 2 delights in having you approach a locked door, forcing you to turn around only to find that the corridor or room you were occupying is no longer, and is now a completely different setting. This isn’t so much a scare tactic as it is a way to disorientate and make you doubt yourself. Being on a cruise liner with a hell-of-a-lot of doors, I’m sure you can grasp just how many times this gimmick is used. Though I found it never really got old, despite the number of rooms I lost just by turning around increasing at an unbelievable rate. It proves to be a fantastic way of changing up a setting which, mostly being long corridors lined with locked doors, could get repetitive fast. Without spoilers, let’s just say that your trusty cruise liner has no trouble keeping the environment interesting. The ever-changing and shifting environments help create moments in Layers of Fear 2 that are among the most interesting this entire console generation.
While psychological horror can be restrictive and lacking in many ways, here it gives the developers free reign to create some incredible environments that are creatively bursting at the seams. The intended impact of each progressively more bizarre location is felt because of great world building and design, but if I didn’t mention how beautiful the game is, I’d be doing the artists a massive disservice. All five chapters and everything within them are detailed to an exceptional degree; every corridor, every object, every item picked up is carefully and expertly crafted to help push toward an atmosphere steeped in tension and dread. Not only does Layers of Fear 2 push toward that atmosphere, it perfects it, delivering a sense of awful dread the duration of the game. Spooky, gruesome imagery plays its part, yes, but the real key to creating a game that, even when you are simply exploring unthreatened, has your heart pounding and your hands ready to quit to the menu at a moment’s notice, is the excellent sound design. Visuals only go so far in determining how tense a horror game is, it’s the sound design that really brings the heat. Layers of Fear 2 nails atmospheric sound better than almost any other game. Walking the corridors of the cruise liner, you’ll hear whispering, talking, footsteps, objects falling to the floor, radio’s that randomly switch on and blare out tunes right next to you, and the loud, unexpected bellowing of the director. All of which combine to make every room an uncomfortably tense experience.
So, the writing is great, the visuals and environments are great, the sound design is fantastic, but is Layers of Fear 2, a horror game, actually scary? Well, yes and no. The game is atmospheric and incredibly tense, even in the quietest, safest moments, but the game drops the ball when it comes to the scare factor. Littered throughout each chapter are chase sections, where you will be chased energetically by a monster of some kind. These moments are pretty unexpected and terrifying, with ever-escalating being-chased-by-a-monster-music. In these sections you simply have to run, or run and quickly open doors to clear a path for yourself, it’s scary stuff. The problem arises when the monster catches you, and you have to restart from a very forgiving checkpoint. The second time, the chase is a bit less scary, you know you can make it through whatever maze you are in, you just need to be a bit faster opening those doors. It catches you again. The third time, and you will be caught a third time, the monster and the chase just stops being scary. The checkpoints ensure that losing to the monster isn’t a punishment, so you just keep replaying it until you nail reaching the end of the chase and shutting the door behind you. Because Layers of Fear 2 is almost entirely linear, there’s only one way to escape the clutches of your persistent pursuer, but often there are so many doors and potential wrong turns that the chases can devolve into trial and error, reducing your fear of the monster almost entirely.
Earlier in this review, I praised the game for some memorable moments, sadly, there’s a sizeable lull in the middle of Layers of Fear 2, with some generic gameplay choices that should have been left in the dust ten years ago. One such moment sees the player in a garden area, it lacks the artistry of the rest of the game, and introduces a gameplay section that is boring, seemingly pointless, and is just adding more involved gameplay for the sake of it. The section requires that players make their way through a maze while being chased by a big beam of murderous light. Hollowed out trees throughout the maze provide safety and respite from the light, but there’s no respite from the outdated design of this section, sadly. There are a few sections that feel outdated in the game, giving a sense that the developers weren’t content with allowing Layers of Fear 2 to be a great, tense walking simulator. Which is a shame, because these moments really bring down a memorable experience.
Layers of Fear 2 has a lot going for it, with excellent writing, visuals, sound design, and atmosphere, let down by some outdated gameplay that doesn’t match the rest of the game. It the game scary? It depends. The issue with psychological horror is that something I may find terrifying, you conversely may not. The tension throughout the 8-hour story is enough for me to say I got my horror fix, but you may feel differently. Layers of Fear 2 is a game that is two-thirds great, one third forgettable and dull, with incredible moments followed by boring ones. Those two-thirds are really great though, rewarding those who want to spend time exploring, listening, and reading story-heavy notes with great writing, voice acting, and a mystery that’s worth investing in. Uncovering the story of the two children is utterly captivating, and makes Layers of Fear 2 easy to recommend to those who want a dark story to get lost in.