Layers of Fear Review

Unreal horror

By Paul Hunter

Bloober Team has a long history of creating immersive horror games, whether that's the cyberpunk thriller Observer, the survival horror Blair Witch or the mind-bending psychological horror The Medium. But they're perhaps best known for Layers of Fear, a frightening and fascinating game originally inspired by Hideo Kojima's P.T. supernatural horror teaser.

Following the original game's DLC story add-on and a sequel in 2019, the franchise is back with the confusingly named Layers of Fear on PS5, Xbox Series X|S and PC. This anthology packs Layers of Fear and its Inheritance DLC, Layers of Fear 2, plus The Final Note, a new chapter that expands upon the first game, and the all-new Writer story which attempts to tie all five stories into one unified narrative. All of this content is now running in Unreal Engine 5, and new lantern-based combat for the first game adds more variety to the series' walking sim gameplay.

If it all sounds a bit confusing the important thing to know is Layers of Fear 2023 is the series' definitive entry that contains all previously released content, along with two new chapters and a massive upgrade to the visuals and audio using Unreal Engine 5. Incredibly enough, all of this is priced at $29.99 USD for the standard edition and $34.99 for the deluxe edition (containing a digital art book and original soundtrack), a seriously tempting value for what's on offer.

Let's get the horror show underway, here are four things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Stunning Graphics and 3D Audio

Layers of Fear is a visual masterpiece that had me staring in amazement constantly through my 13-hour first playthrough. The photo-realistic graphics are virtually lifelike and combined with the spatial 3D audio, had me fully immersed in the game's many haunting environments, perhaps more so than any horror game in recent years. Whether it was the gorgeously gruesome Victorian mansion in the Painter's story, the claustrophobic cruise ship in the Actor's story, or the lonely new Lighthouse in the Writer's story, everything looked sublime.

The game also takes advantage of UE5's Lumen technology to produce brilliant lighting, shadows and reflections that are easily among the best I've seen in any game this gen so far. And, of course, the advanced lumen tech is there to heighten the terror with crisp, dynamic shadows and arresting lighting effects to accentuate the scary elements in each room. From the sudden lightning strikes to the rooms with intense red-light filters to the traumatizing black and white lighting mannequin segments, the game had me constantly jumping out of my seat in fear.

Looking at other technical elements, Layers of Fear continues to impress with its support for 4K, HDR and ray tracing. The texture details are truly incredible and it was fairly common for me to take a moment to stare at all the beautifully rendered wall paintings, room objects and dilapidated hallways. Each area also has its own supernatural and psychedelic effects that routinely made me feel ill at ease. Playing this game on a large TV with 3D audio-capable headsets is a must.

Speaking of headphones, I have to emphasize just how remarkable the audio design is at building a terrifying, macabre atmosphere. There are regular unsettling sounds like floors creaking, babies crying, and white noise effects that remind you that more horrors may be waiting around each corner or door. The voice acting is also top-notch for the most part, with dialogue conducted with the right emotions and great accuracy. What's more, the soundtrack composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski is hauntingly beautiful and a perfect fit for the game's horror theme.

While I have a lot to praise regarding Layers of Fear's presentation, there is a rather lengthy section in the Daughter's story where the fog effects are too powerful and it was hard to see anything. Plus you play as the daughter with lower eyesight, compounding the navigation issues.

Liked: Great Stories

Layers of Fear is marketed as a horror title, but it's much more a narrative adventure with strong psychological horror elements. If you had already played the original versions, the stories are mostly the same, with the exception of the Painter story which now has more rooms to explore, an expanded story and new voice acting for the many notes and memos you can collect. Of course, there are two new stories to experience as well, with each of them lasting about 90 minutes.

To give you a small taste of the five stories you'll experience in Layers of Fear, here are brief synopses. The Writer's story begins the adventure and focuses on a fiction author who holes up in an abandoned lighthouse to inspire her work and focus without distraction. Sitting down at a typewriter, her first literary creation is The Painter's story told in the original Layers of Fear. This tale explores the Painter's descent into madness following a fire that disfigured his wife.

Next up, we have The Musician's story, a new chapter that recounts the visions of the painter's wife following the fire. We continue to explore this family with The Daughter's story as she returns to her parent's house as an adult. Finally, the harrowing journey ends with the story of a popular actor who begins to lose his mind during the production of his latest film aboard a ship. In between many of these stories, you'll continue the Writer's story which serves as a connecting thread between the stories of LoF and LoF2.

If you take the time to fully explore areas, reading the many notes scattered about and soaking in the scenery, the stories are quite deep and fascinating. All of the violent acts you'll read about and partially experience are never fully shown, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. The two new chapter additions also throw wrinkles into these stories with the Painter perhaps not being quite the villain originally thought to be, plus the Writer's story makes you question whether any of these tales are real in the first place.

Liked: Expanded Gameplay

The Layer of Fear series has been labelled a "walking simulator" since the core gameplay involves entering a new place, witnessing scary psychological horror flashes, then entering the next area to rinse and repeat.

Addressing that feedback, for this reimagined collection Bloober Team and Anshar Studios have introduced a lantern mechanic into the Painter's story that allows you to defend yourself against apparitions that pursue you. There are also certain items that you're able to burn by lighting them up, usually opening up a new path or helping you to solve a puzzle. Previously, you faced off against invisible threats, but now in this installment, the demons have materialized.

On the topic of puzzles, the ones in this game are well thought out, like having to shine your lantern around a room to locate hidden messages that only appear under the light. There are also the usual padlock numbers to find, keys to locate and some rather clever puzzles that require you to change your perspective. I liked that most puzzles had a light challenge while not being too difficult to hinder progression in the game.

Liked: Multiple Ending

Completing all five stories takes between 10-15 hours depending on how thorough you explore, but there's a lot more content for those willing to give these stories another go. Most stories have two or three alternate endings unlocked by making particular choices or engaging with specific items during your playthrough.

For convenience, the main menu has a chapter selection where you can dive in to replay your desired chapter with all progression preserved. So if you're missing a few collectibles there may not be a need to restart the whole story thanks to the chapter selection. For a completionist like me, it's an easy way to nab that 100%.

Didn't Like: A Bit Too Linear

Layers of Fear really excels at creating tension and is genuinely scary, so for those reasons alone this compilation is worth checking out. That said, a common complaint about this series is it's extremely linear and it's absolutely true. The new lantern gameplay mechanic helps provide a bit more variety, but at its core, all five games are heavily scripted and events are triggered by taking very specific actions. If you enjoy player agency and certain freedoms in your horror games, you're unlikely to find it here. My suggestion is to not rush through all five stories, but rather take your time and give yourself some breathing room between each.

The Verdict

Layers of Fear is easily Blooper Team's crowning jewel and the best way to experience these games. Leveraging the power of Unreal Engine 5, the team has delivered their true vision of psychological horror without compromise. There are a handful of flaws and the stories can feel too linear, but it's not enough to overshadow all the positive qualities this title has.

Final Score: 8/10 - Great

Layers of Fear details

Platform: PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PC
Developer: Bloober Team, Anshar Studios
Publisher: Bloober Team
Genre: Horror
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

A key was provided by the publisher.