We found Layers of Fear just a little ironic when we played it back in 2016. It followed an artist's inner struggle to achieve perfection whilst narrowly missing that mark itself with its limited interactivity and over-reliance on jump scares. Sure the potential was there, but these flaws and more prevented it from being held in the same regard as other contemporaries such as Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Three years later and Bloober Team has taken a second stab at the formula and has made a handful of tweaks making for some mixed results.
Following the theme of struggling creatives, Layers of Fear 2 casts you in the shoes of an aspiring Hollywood actor who has just taken on the role of his career. The entire story unfolds upon a luxury 1930s-style cruise ship known as the Royal Atlantic Line which is the set of the movie that you are about to make. It opts for the same method of storytelling as its predecessor as it leaves you to piece together things on your own by examining letters, children's drawings, and other snippets of correspondence, all to uncover the true meaning behind the horrific imagery that greets you around every corner.
Layers of Fear 2 shoves aside the generic haunted house trope used by its predecessor and instead takes place in the middle of the ocean. We've seen this setting work well before in Cold Fear and Resident Evil: Revelations and here it's also realised to great effect. The creak of the hull, our unstable footing as the ship floats across the waves, and the booming of thunder and rain outside all helped add to an already tense atmosphere. The new setting also helped to provide a lot more environmental variety this time around; in one chapter we were walking across the ship's deck gazing at the glow of the setting sun on the waves and in the next we were trailed through a shadowy hedge maze by a mysterious figure.
Things are much more interactive this time around but for the most part they should still feel familiar if you have played the original. You'll follow a linear path across the ship moving from one chilling set piece to the next. Arms will reach out of the walls, doors will slam shut in your face, and mannequins will begin to move after appearing lifeless. The game will play mind tricks on you too as chalk marks will reposition themselves on the floor, hallways will become elongated, and doors that were once open will lock shut behind you. The jumps scares here, we are pleased to report, have been toned down significantly and have been replaced by more involved puzzles and chase sequences that can result in the player's death and it feels less cheap in execution.
Walking simulator wouldn't be an apt term this time around as you can't simply push the analogue stick in the right direction to progress through the story. Halting your progress are a series of puzzles and whilst many of them are simplistic, we found them to deliver some of the tensest moments within the story. In one chapter we had to make a stew from collecting human body parts and we found ourselves hesitating as we had to snatch these from mannequins anxiously anticipating the moment they would lunge at us. We remember too how we had to shuffle through rolls of grainy old film footage to make hidden doors and objects ominously appear within the projector screen before us.
A complaint that we had regarding the original is that the sense of danger was minimal. Sure, the scares were there in good supply but there was no way for the player to be killed and become a victim to the horrors that surrounded them. There are now environmental obstacles such as glowing spotlights and scorching flames that can result in a fatality as well as frequently occurring chase sequences. We often found ourselves on the run from an unknown nightmarish creature and had to navigate our way through the cramped corridors of the ship without getting snatched up. These sequences were heart racing that's for sure but they demanded an unfair amount of trial and error. We remember getting killed in one part because we didn't know that we had to shut the ship's door behind ourselves, for example.
Things have taken a leap forward in the visual department with the title carrying a triple-A feel despite its indie game status. Everything here looks wonderfully detailed and crisp which added a layer of realism to standout moments such as journeying across a rain-soaked deck amidst a storm and combing for collectables under a red-tinged lighthouse beam. The presentation and sound design are solid but something that we weren't completely sold on was the voice acting. Tony Todd delivers an admirable performance as narrator but it was the two central child actors that struggled to sell us on their roles and achieve the same standard. Given how prominent they are featured within the story (you hear them when interacting with pretty much anything) it really detracts from the polish seen across other aspects of its presentation.
For the most part, this sequel represents a step up when compared to the original and it stands as a solid psychological horror in its own right. We found that the Royal Atlantic Line played host to may chilling moments and some surprisingly diverse locales and, overall, we were pleased that devs introduced more of a sense of danger this time around. The voice acting is shoddy in places though and the chase sequences do require some frustrating trial and error. That being said, it's worth a look for horror fans, even those who came away from the original feeling slightly disappointed.