Layers of Fear 2 review: Stage Fright

It’s so refreshing to play a horror game like Layers of Fear 2. When so many games are trying to be the next viral hit by hitting streamers with jump scares, it’s a rare treat to play something that’s more interested in getting under the skin and embedding a feeling of dread that sticks around long after the credits roll; that’s more interested in using horror to explore an idea than just deliver scares for scares’ sake. That’s the sort of game this is.

Layers of Fear 2 is as much a trip through the history of cinema as it is a horror game. You’re cast as an unnamed actor in the 1930s, starring in a film that’s being shot on an ocean liner at the hands of a mysterious director. However, the ship’s cabins and decks soon start giving way to surreal scenes, drawing on everything from The Wizard of Oz to Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), from Nosferatu to The Shining.

Likewise, the very structure of the game mimics the language of cinema in clever, creative ways. Usually when people describe a game as “cinematic”, they mean “it has lots of cutscenes and high production values”. Layers of Fear 2 is “cinematic” in the true sense of the word: it makes deliberate use of the sort editing, framing, and shooting techniques that have come to define cinema—and it does so while almost never taking control away from you and cutting to a “cutscene”.

The way the different scenes and locations of the game feed into one another is reminiscent of how film editing tells a story through cuts. Instead of a “natural” progression from room to room that fit together logically—a game design equivalent of a continuous, single shot in film—Layers of Fear 2‘s scenery changes suddenly and drastically. You’ll open a door from the hallway of a cruise liner’s lower decks and suddenly find yourself on a stage adorned with a prop pirate ship and a sea of cardboard cutout waves, and then exit stage right into a creepy old-timey living room with a chair suspended in the air. You’ll follow the only path forward, wind up in what seems like a dead end, then turn around and see that the way you just came has been replaced wholesale by a completely different set.

Compared to the typical videogame structure, it sounds disjointed—and it is, I guess. But that’s deliberate; it’s not just a haphazard collection of random scenes, but a way of weaving a story and conveying ideas through the juxtaposition of different shots. That’s the magic of the cinematic cut, and Layers of Fear 2‘s creative adaptation of that technique to a videogame format works wonders.

Similarly, a lot of the game’s puzzles rely on things like framing and camera perspective to solve. You have free reign to move the first-person camera about as you please, but it’s only by looking at things from a certain angle, or positioning yourself to compose a shot the way a camera operator would, that the solution becomes clear. In a few puzzles, you’re asked to literally go through a (brief, thankfully) reel of film, frame by frame, to find key details that you can then splice together.

That doesn’t sound especially terrifying in itself, but it’s the way that Layers of Fear 2 weaves a medley of surreal imagery together that makes it deeply unsettling. You never quite know what you’re going to find when you open a new door—perhaps just another ship cabin; perhaps a kitchen full of apples floating ominously in midair; perhaps a bloodied hallway that just stretches on forever, the door at the end never getting closer no matter how fast you run.

Whichever scene you find, it’ll almost always be home to at least a few eerie iron mannequins. Just seeing their humanoid silhouettes in the shadows is enough to create tension, but when they start moving, with their jagged, stop-motion-like animations, they get downright creepy—to say nothing of those moments where they suddenly burst into flame, or appear out of nowhere when you turn around and find yourself staring into their dead, lifeless eyes.

And, finally, there’s the monster. Layers of Fear 2 isn’t a stalker horror as such—that is to say, there isn’t the constant threat of deadly, outlandish foe that you have to constantly avoid—but everyone now and then, you’ll find yourself on the run from a formless, vaguely humanoid blob that increasingly distorts the screen as it gets closer and will kill instantly if it catches you. The monster’s appearances are sparse enough that they never lose their impact, but frequent enough that it’s always there, in the back of your mind. You never know if the next door you open or the next step you take is going to see you suddenly on the run.

All of this comes together to make playing through Layers of Fear 2 a decidedly unnerving experience. As the surrealness of it all ratchets up, as even those brief moments of reprieve where things seem to have returned to “normal” for a moment prove to be anything but, Layers of Fear 2 digs under your skin to put you constantly on edge. It grows harder to distinguish between what’s “real” and what isn’t, and it’s nightmarish either way.

Which seems appropriate for a game about an actor.

What does it take to play a role? What does it take to play a role so convincingly that your character becomes real to the audience? Or, more precisely, what do you give up—what do you lose when you embody a character so wholly and utterly that the line between the actor and the character start to blur? What happens when this character that you’ve embodied so completely deviates from what the director—the puppetmaster to the character’s puppet—wants?

But, as much as Layers of Fear 2 uses the imagery of cinema, it’s definition of “actor” extends wider, to children playing make believe. In tandem to the main actor’s surreal story is another tale about the wild adventures that two young siblings go on as they play at being pirates. What starts as just a cute little aside from the horrors of the main game slowly gets more intertwined with the story of the actor and game’s overarching themes. As you learn more about the children, it becomes apparent that they’re not just playing games; there’s an element of escapism to their make-believe, and a sense that, on some level, the kids are starting to lose sight of what’s real.

Essentially, Layers of Fear 2 is asking the timeless questions at the heart of many a psychological horror story: who am I? Am I the person I think I am? Is reality, as I know it, real?

The intertwining stories of an actor’s descent into madness and the sinister background to two childrens’ seemingly playful make-believe are a perfect vessel for this sort of existential terror. The surreal imagery, unsettling atmosphere, and occasional but well-timed monster appearances drive that terror home.

Great horror isn’t just about dropping scares on you; great horror gets under your skin, and sits with you long after you thought you’d left the game behind you. That’s exactly the sort of horror that Layers of Fear 2 delivers.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.