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Layers of Fear (2023) review - A representation of both the best and worst of Bloober Team

Layers of Fear offers a strong, promising start, but ultimately results in a major case of whiplash.

Image credit: Bloober Team

Layers of Fear (2023) brings together the stories of Layers of Fear (2016) and Layers of Fear 2 (2019), remastering the two horror titles in Unreal Engine 5 to deliver a seamless, puzzling trip into the psyche of creatives-gone-mad. Sadly, this remake represents the best and worst of Bloober Team.

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This time around you’ll start out as The Writer, a new character destined to pen the disturbing tales of The Artist and The Actor, while encountering your own unusual goings-on in the Lighthouse you’re holed up in. After having won a competition to write a book about ‘one of the most mysterious and tragic figures in the history of modern art,’ you’ll be exploring winding corridors and tending to a ringing phone that is eerily reminiscent of that in the game’s inspiration, P.T.

Soon, you’re whisked into the grandiose home of The Painter and his family, and things begin to look familiar again. A home in complete disarray, burning candles and dimly lit lamps in each room, even the letter from pest control threatening us with lawyers if we contact them again, are still here. The only stark difference is in quality; built in Unreal Engine 5, Layers of Fear (2023) looks ridiculously good, at the best of times, anyway.

The player reads a note about a writing competition in Layers of Fear (2023)
Doesn't seem like a strange opportunity at all. | Image credit: Bloober Team

Much like the original Layers of Fear, and even the aforementioned P.T. demo, nothing is as it seems here. You’ll enter rooms to re-emerge somewhere different. You’ll see a perfectly normal painting transform into something else in a blink of an eye. Shadows shaped like The Artist’s wife slowly creep across corridors. With this, you start questioning yourself. What’s real and what isn’t in this illusory hellscape? It’s as though you’re in purgatory, being forced to confront a character’s trauma head-on in the hopes of finally escaping these never-ending nightmares.

As the game goes on and things only become more surreal - blood pouring from paintings, house fires that vanish almost as quickly as they appear, doors spitting you out in completely different rooms than the ones you came from - more visual glitches appear too, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t all intentional. Shining my light in certain corners revealed the silhouette of documents and other items that shouldn’t have been there. Turning tight corners would often see the walls flicker, and sometimes, prompts to interact with items would just vanish. On one occasion, I also clearly wound up in an area I wasn’t supposed to be in; after waking up in a room and beginning to approach a distant item, I was teleported through the walls and to a corridor that I could move no more than a metre in. There was no escape, except returning to the main menu.

Bugs aren’t squashed during The Actor’s story either; by this point, my subtitles only worked as and when they wanted to, and my ‘Press to Drag’ setting that I had enabled to save my sore hands from the shackles of my Xbox controller also stopped working. There came plenty of points where I questioned whether something was broken, or if the game was playing tricks with me; usually, it was the latter, but having this thought whatsoever after encountering issue after issue began to break the immersion.

The player looks at a canvas, with some text on the wall visible behind it, in Layers of Fear (2023)
Get it right this time... | Image credit: Bloober Team

This aside, The Painter’s story is continually interesting, especially in its latter half. Things become more hallucinatory, with the luxurious home of The Painter gradually decaying as his past is revealed further; the once beautiful home merely becomes an infrastructure of ash, decay, and some truly horrific memories. When dolls and candelabras aren’t spasming all over the show, there’s a lot to appreciate about The Artist’s story; the storytelling itself, the omniscient presence of the injured wife, and their child… who we never really do get to know much about, but we can see that things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows for them.

Layers of Fear starts out incredibly strong, but begins to falter in the second half of the game. Ultimately, the story of The Actor let me down; even with The Writer to intertwine the stories at play, The Actor’s story doesn’t feel like it fits. Even when approached as a standalone story, it doesn’t build suspension like The Artists’ story does, the storytelling is nowhere near as effective, and the writing is much poorer.

Perhaps my patience had run out by the time I waded through the story of The Actor, but piecing together the story of this director-gone-mad aboard an omnipotent ship, and the crew that accompanied them, became a drag. It’s obtuse, and often nonsensical, with so many horror tropes squeezed in that it’s hard to identify what Bloober Team was trying to do with this particular story.

The player faces a chest and lamp, with some text on the wall depicting scales, in Layers of Fear (2023)
Is it too late to turn it all around? Yes. | Image credit: Bloober Team

That said, it is ambitious, and I can appreciate that. The story of The Actor sees various elements added to gameplay; we can sprint, crawl, climb, and will often have to outrun a monster that - in this scenario - reminds me an awful lot of The Thing. Its story is drip-fed to you via whispers and item interactions, and puzzles have some depth to them. The tricks employed to disorient players feel much more subtle than that of The Artist, too, and the illusions you find yourself becoming a part of are just as wild as the first half of the game. Even with all these great additions, however, The Actor's story will not captivate you half as much as The Artist, or even The Writer.

As much as The Actor’s story is ambitious, it very quickly becomes boring. Flicking through movie reels to discover secret doors, shining a light on mannequins so that they can retell past events, and generally trying to work out what happened to our director on board this ship becomes more frustrating than it does horrifying. The ambition on show can be respected, but it’s arguable that Bloober Team got too ambitious here, and left us with a hodgepodge of horror references and mannequin-related gimmicks to wade through at detriment to the actual story of The Actor, and ultimately, the whole remake.

Layers of Fear (2023) starts out strong with the story of The Artist, and loses itself amidst its own ambition during the story of The Actor. Bloober Team’s once meaningful exploration of a character’s descent into madness quickly becomes redundant amidst a sea of film references and blurred storytelling. Layers of Fear is certainly a cohesive remake that brings the original games together, and there’s no denying that it looks great, but its second act feels incredibly lost when contrasted against such a strong start. Layers of Fear (2023) is one major case of whiplash, that’s for sure, but it does showcase Bloober Team's potential to do good if it can nail down the focal points of the stories it tells.

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