The Shining stands as a true milestone in film making, and while the direction that Stanley Kubrick took the movie famously wasn't to the tastes of author Stephen King, it made use of elements and motifs that have come to influence the genre ever since.
Similar to how Kubrick changed the horror genre in movies more than thirty years ago, the gaming horror genre is undergoing a similar change of direction, at least as far as the way developers tell and structure their stories. Where once the horror in games was offered to the player through the use (and abuse) of zombies, the undead, and frightful creatures of that sort, contemporary horror increasingly relies on creating a sense of loss in the player, putting him or her in infinite loops generating intense confusion in those who explore them. The fear is no longer generated solely by scary creatures that inhabit certain places, but from the places themselves (usually homes, with a labyrinthine or layered structure), which change their form and appearance.
Among the earliest examples of games that have taken their first steps in this direction, there was the Silent Hills' demo, P.T., where much of its horror sprang from travelling endless corridors, in addition to an interesting take on sound design that amplified the sense of fear in the player. Then there was The Park by Funcom, as well as projects currently in the works such as Lilith's Allison Road and SadSquare Studio's Visage. Last but not the least, there's Layers of Fear, the newest work from indie outfit Bloober Team, which recently released on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.
A story-driven game experienced entirely in the first-person, Layers of Fear has several things in common with Kubrick's The Shining. Just like the (failed) writer Jack Torrance, Bloober Team's game stars an artist obsessed by creating the perfect work, his masterpiece, the one that will allow him to become the most important painter of his time.
It's an unbearable torment that soon leads him to madness, undermining his relationship with his family, and and along the way the player discovers the various stages that lead this man down into an abyss from which there can be no return.
The gameplay mechanics - who detractors of the so-called "walking simulator" won't like at all - are reduced to a few simple actions, such as opening and closing drawers and cabinets, finding objects, solving simple puzzles (a few, however, are true gems but we won't spoil anything here) and picking up items and collectibles. In particular, the latter represents a good incentive that will push the player to a second walktrough, finally free from a hunger to discover the narrative aspects of the game.
Besides several scripted sections that we find in each chapter - one of the most significant weaknesses we found in the game - one element that reduces the sense of terror in Layers of Fear is the inability of the protagonist to die. One of the most important cornerstones of the horror genre is based around the player's fear of running into some creature that will lead to death or that will create obstacles in their path. In the new game by Team Bloober this aspect is completely missing, more and more ensuring that we're interactive viewers rather than actual participants. There is a current trend in video games which increasingly lets the player passively witness events rather than being active part of the experience (a journey that arguably started in the first Half-Life).
That said, the surreal atmosphere from the very first moments in Layers of Fear will absolutely satisfy fans of the genre. In the shoes of the main character - who's made even more disturbing by his limp, something that forces him to walk with greater caution down the corridors and around the rooms of his old house - we explore the multi-floored structure which is itself decorated with a fascinating art style.
To further amplify the feeling of alienation and the descent into madness of the character, the studio did an excellent job on the sound design, which definitely plays a very important role in this particular experience. In this regard, we recommend playing Layers of Fear with a pair of good headphones, so you won't miss any minor sound clue or audio detail, something that will add value to the experience as a whole.
We played PlayStation 4 version and from a technical perspective we were quite satisfied. Although it must be noted that the experience is slowed somewhat by some lengthy loading times - in particular in the transition from one chapter to another - Layers of Fear sounds good, looks good, and the moments where we saw frame-rate drops or tearing that compromised our game session were few and far between.
Narratively interesting and striking from an artistic point of view, Layers of Fear is an enjoyable game, and overall its successful in its aims. Although it lacks a level of interaction - a design decision that we're seeing increasingly in this genre and in the industry in general - Bloober Team's work is a beautifully packaged product, very much in line with the trend currently taking over the new-look horror genre. It paints a fascinating and thrilling atmosphere, largely thanks to a completely mad protagonist and the highly unsettling situations he finds himself in.