Fear is driven by the unknown, the uncertainty of danger and the creeping dread of the things which lurk just out of reach of our understanding. It’s these things which have always drawn me to the horror genre. The compelling and haunting unknown. I have always found that the scariest things are those which play on my intrigue and paranoia, that which makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and causes me to feel a constant sense of dread despite my need to go further into the darkness. This mysterious horror has drawn me to films like Blair Witch, The Ring and The Shining and also to the games of Polish developer Bloober Team. Bloober Team has delivered some of the most intriguing horror games that I’ve played over the last several years including Blair Witch, Observer and The Medium. They deliver haunting narratives and psychological horror that strikes a nerve with my particular interests in the genre. Layers of Fear is perhaps the series that put Bloober Team on the map for many players, yet it is one that I had yet to try until now. With the release of Layers of Fear for the PSVR I felt this was the perfect opportunity to not only try this franchise out, but to do so in a unique way that only VR can provide. It’s also worth noting that Layers of Fear VR is my first foray into the horror genre in the VR space. So how does Layers of Fear VR hold up? Maybe the more important question is “how did I hold up?”.
Layers of Fear is a gothic, psychological freefall that begins at “creepy” and ends at “terrifying”. The game places you in the role of a struggling artist alone in his dark and foreboding mansion on a stormy night. Unsettling paintings and sculptures are all around and before anything ever goes wrong you are gifted with a sense of unease simply by the design of the empty home. The rain and thunder pound against the walls around you as you begin your exploration of the house and piece together the clues of the story which are like bread crumbs leading you through the experience. The feeling of exploring this house in VR takes a little getting used to at first and I would recommend that while the setup of Layers of Fear allows you to choose between a sitting or standing play style, I would absolutely play standing for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, the sense of place is elevated considerably when you physically crouch down to pick up objects off of the floor or to open low laying cabinets rather than by doing so with the click of the crouch button on the Move controller. Standing about will provide you a much greater sense of presence than just sitting and it’s worth committing to this right off the bat. Secondly the Move controllers are notorious for having difficulty being tracked properly and I found that by standing in better view of my camera limited the loss of tracking. Finally there are several moments in the game that are meant to disorient the player by manipulating the environment from under your feet and this feeling only happens successfully when you are on those feet. I won’t spoil anything but I will say keep those feet planted and enjoy the thrill of being tilted off balance by the clever developers at Bloober Team.
Playing this game in VR also provides without a doubt the most terrifying video game experience I have ever had. It’s not even close. I’m not adverse to being scared when I play games. I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I have to turn the lights on or take a pause when a game can be too intense. But Layers of Fear in VR doesn’t relent in keeping you in its icy grip. With a VR visor on your face there is no looking away from the game or hiding your face in your hands and peeking between your fingers. In fact the game is so aggressive in how it terrorizes you that it uses the actual physical act of looking away against the player. It is the perfect gameplay mechanic baked into a VR horror game to use your want to look away from it against you. Layers of Fear VR is the only horror game I’ve ever played where I wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish it because of how it absolutely shredded my nerves. So if you’re into that kind of thrill, this game is for you.
The hook of the gameplay of Layers of Fear VR is that the protagonist is being haunted not only by the things that go bump in his house, but by his own mind. As you progress through the game your grip on reality begins to loosen and the events that transpire around you start to reflect that. This is where Layers of Fear’s design shines as a stroke of genius. Perception is key to this title and the game tracks exactly what you are looking at and when. The devils at Bloober Team begin playing subtle tricks on you at first but quickly step up their game before long. One example had me exploring a small room in the cellar and as I walked from corner to corner the objects in the room would rearrange themselves when my back was turned to them. As soon as I turned around I was faced with a giant 6 foot tall painting of a man staring me dead in the eyes that was not there but seconds earlier. Layers of Fear quickly elevates and expands on this mechanic by rewriting the footprint of the house itself around you as you go. Walking down a hallway towards a dead end might give you the impression that you have to go back the way you came, but as soon as you turn around you’ll discover that the hallway is gone entirely and you’re now in a completely different wing of the house. These are neat tricks that I’ve seen in other, more traditional games before, but the act of being present via virtual reality and triggering this occurrence by physically turning my head to look over my shoulder is nothing short of chilling.
The narrative of Layers of Fear is something that is best kept under wraps so that you can experience it through the act of play. The plot is told through environmental storytelling by showing you visual clues in your environment and by having you read letters and clippings that piece together the backstory on just what is happening here. Bloober Team knows that a great horror story sometimes succeeds by leaving some things to the imagination and they execute that just as well here in Layers of Fear as they do in their other games as well. I found myself intrigued and pulled along as I tried to figure out just what horrible things went wrong in this house to bring me to this moment. While the ending left something to be desired due to its abrupt finale I was ultimately satisfied with the story told throughout the course of the experience. It’s a shame that once the credit roll began I was unsure if I had actually finished just because of how strangely brief the final moments are. The conclusion of the story itself is satisfying, I just felt that the pacing of the closing scene was awkwardly executed.
In closing Layers of Fear VR is the ultimate haunted house experience in your living room. It is a horror game that will get under your skin and give you chills from start to finish. While I absolutely enjoyed my experience with it, I also struggled to complete it because of just how visceral the scares were. I would not recommend this game for the faint of heart but if you have the desire to experience the thrill of being haunted by the spirits within its halls, Layers of Fear VR is more than up to the task.