A while back I’d played through a little indie horror title centering around a depraved artist called Layers of Fear, and enjoyed it. Years passed, and then what do I see but a sequel arriving on the Switch! Of course, this is but a port of a PC version which launched two years ago, leading me to wonder: Did it simply fail to make as big a splash as the original, or did it escape my notice by sheer misfortune? Of course I had to find out.
Layers of Fear 2 was developed by Bloober Team, and released on Switch on May 19th, 2021.
A Fine Performance
Layers of Fear 2 starts a bit ambiguously. It’s not entirely certain where you are, and certainly isn’t clear WHO you are. It’s not until you take the sole unlocked route back to your room that a few things become clear. You’re an actor on an ocean liner somewhere preparing for a role, surrounded by self-help advice on how to “build your character.” And therein lies the overarching theme of the game.
Like the original, Layers of Fear 2 follows an artist who has gone quite mad, except in this case it is an actor rather than a painter. It has a lot to say about the sacrifices one makes for their art, sinking the art of putting on a performance beneath the waves of mysticism. If I’m going to be completely honest, it comes across as more than a little pretentious… and this coming from a pretentious writer. On that note I’m fairly sure what the protagonist of Layers of Fear 3 will be. Outside of some artistic references here and there and similarly being mad artists, however, there isn’t much connecting this game to the previous, for better or worse.
A lot is made about “building the character,” but despite you ostensibly doing so there’s very little done about actually building your character. There is little to no information about what kind of person you are until right at the end and while certain things you do influence this, in practice this is only noticeable in hindsight. This means until a full playthrough is finished you feel like a complete non-entity outside of your room, just a member of the audience instead of the lead on stage.
That’s not to say there’s absolutely nothing going on. As you explore you’ll find items you can examine, prompting an auditory echo of the past, or notes you can read. Most of them concern a pair of stowaway children, and the crew led by a captain determined to find out who’s been stealing supplies. It’s a tale of survival, fear, trauma, and loss, and there is a payoff for everything else in the end… eventually. There’s also a large amount of environmental storytelling, usually as a reference to some famous film, but typically these have little bearing on anything else going on besides serving as a reminder that you are, theoretically at least, someone who works in the film industry.
Find Your Fun
Much like most first-person psychological horror games, and I’m a little surprised there’s enough to call it a trend, gameplay mostly involves going from room to room looking for whatever will open the way forward as an excuse to come across spooky stuff. It’s honestly a little funny how much of the spooky content can be downright skipped if you’re doing a second playthrough and can just make a beeline for the destination. Of course, this being a horror game, those scares are kind of the point and exploring to see them is their own reward, and then there’s a heap of collectables to find as well to further encourage exploration.
To its credit, progress is not always as simple as moving to the end of the room. Commonly there’s several doors and only one that works, and sometimes you’ll need to find a key. Sometimes there’s relatively minor puzzles, like flipping a switch or plugging something in. Then, on rare occasions, there’s grand setpieces centering around a singular puzzle or obstacle, and it’s here where the game truly shines.
These sets have some of the most singular and evocative environments in the game. I may not quite remember what I did in all of the endless passenger lounges, but I certainly remember traversing a grand outdoor garden while avoiding the dread gaze of a gargantuan cycloptic skeleton.
Now, that’s not to say everything deserves a standing ovation. There’s one quirk of the gameplay that started to annoy me at the end: The non-Euclidean baloney, or to put it in layman terms, the way the game screws with the level geometry. It was a bit clever the first time I reached a locked door and then turned around to find a completely different room behind me than the one I was just exploring. Towards the end it was a bit more shocking when that didn’t happen.
Worse still was when this aspect was utilized in puzzles, as it was never obvious and usually just meant I wandered about aimlessly until by random chance I took the right way around a stupid pole to enter the version of a room where the door existed. Later on it also felt more lazy; several times this would happen but things changed which were close enough to me that I could see the shift and ruin the magic, and on one occasion I rushed towards a closing door and opened it again too quickly, winding up in a black void rather than the next area that was supposed to load. Naturally given the genre it took a minute before I realized this wasn’t part of the game and reloaded.
A Rusty Port
Horror games are all about presentation, and Layers of Fear 2 is no exception. A lot of care was put into the creepy visuals, and it certainly feels more unique than a lot of games. There’s a bit of camp to the scares, more thriller than horror, and despite taking place entirely on an ocean liner the developers used the madness and memories of the plot to give us a wide variety of places to visit, all with a certain attention to detail.
That said, this is one area where I definitely feel having it on the Switch does it no favors. Normally I’m a huge fan of having games on the Switch; being able to play in bed or on the TV, or even in a car ride is something I love. But enjoying a spooky game takes a certain immersion not really suited for playing on the go.
More importantly sound is really important to the point that many horror games, this one included, recommend headphones while playing. Unless you have a fairly particular setup (Having it docked at a desk with a TV with a headphone input, or connected to a capture card on PC) you have to choose between headphones and playing with it docked… and Layers of Fear 2 absolutely suffers from the performance drop when playing undocked. It’s already a pretty dark game and it can be difficult to find things. Putting it on a smaller screen at a lower resolution makes this even harder. Finding any details at all was just about impossible while moving. It’s to the point that I’d really recommend against ever playing it undocked, and at that point you may as well play it on any of the other platforms unless the Switch is your sole gaming platform.
Any Port in a Storm
Layers of Fear 2 is an enjoyable experience, if a bit flawed. There’s not a single part I didn’t enjoy, but neither is there any section that avoided serious criticism. As a relatively cheap game, I’d say definitely pick it up if you’re a fan of spooks and scares, but don’t expect it to especially move you or last more than a few days.
I’d also say that despite this being a review for the Switch copy, to try it on a different platform instead, since it doesn’t capitalize on any of the system’s strengths and it suffers from its flaws.
Review copy provided by Bloober Team for Switch. Screenshots provided by reviewer.