Remember Layers of Fear? It was a first person horror game about an artist trying to complete his masterwork while mental illness turns the house into an impossible space of ever-changing rooms and corridors filled with lore about his backstory. It was good, eschewing Amnesia-style weaponless stealth in favour of mood and atmosphere. Now there’s a sequel, so here we are.
Continuing with the theme of tortured artists wandering around being reminded what bastards they are, this time you’re a celebrated film actor named James, exploring a luxury cruise ship where filming was taking place. In place of the Artist’s Magnum Opus is the ultimate character James was meant to play, with each psycho-journey getting him closer to fully inhabiting the role. Unfortunately James’ story is hinged entirely on a traumatic moment from his childhood, and the game is spent waiting to be told what it was even though you figured it out hours ago. The original didn’t have a central mystery as such, it used the run time to hint at what happened to result in The Artist roaming around his house using body parts to paint a portrait; filling in the gaps gradually to give you details about a situation it’s already outlined to you. To have a grand reveal on which to have hours of references that are purposefully vague because there’s barely anything to conceal absolutely butchers the game’s minute-to-minute pacing. A game like this is about the journey, capped off by the destination, something Layers of Fear 2 fails to heed. Worse still, James being an actor doesn’t really have any relevance to the plot, besides four moral choices of a sort that are linked to taking or refusing direction, and collectable posters of films he was in. I think. They might just be of films whoever put them up liked.
Apart from a couple of changes, the game mostly takes place on the ship, which quickly gets boring. Unlike the original’s constantly changing architecture and use of colour the environments here are mostly in black and white, have nothing of note or interest in them and are populated exclusively by manikins, which are woefully unequipped for all the symbolism heavy lifting the game asks of them. The second of five acts is particularly bad for this, just being stretch after stretch of dark corridors. There are moments when the game tries to spice things up a bit, but they’re all underwhelming. There are now rudimentary enemy encounters with a faceless humanoid monstery thing with no real sense of internal consistency or logic. Sometimes you have to run away from it, sometimes you have to hide from it, sometimes you have to run towards it which then somehow turns into running away from it; it’s clearly been designed to work around how the horror and exploration work, to its detriment. The enemy in the original popped up now and then as a scare and nothing more, and that worked so much better. There’s a short part chase, part hiding sequence with it in a maze near the end of the game and it’s dreadful. Every time the thing turned up it was annoying and, crucially, never scary. That goes for the game as a whole, and it’s due in large part to everything being so bland and lifeless. The original kept you on edge, built up an atmosphere of unpredictability and dread. Nothing of the sort here, not even close. Also manikins aren’t scary apart from that one bit in Condemned. Ah Condemned. What a banger.
Oddly, there are modern film references, despite seemingly being set in the early twenty first century. Se7en gets an extended, explicit shout-out that feels completely out of place, the Shining gets one, there are probably more but by the time I realised they were there I was rushing towards the end of the game.
As I write this I’ve just finished Layers of Fear 2 and I’m already struggling to remember it. How Bloober team went from something vivid, atmospheric and interesting like the original Layers of Fear to something so dull, bland and boring, that’s such an uneventful slog to play is beyond me. It’s a shame.
By James Lambert