Few game developers have quite the mastery of psychological horror as Bloober Team. Layers of Fear 2, originally released for other platforms in 2019, and now making its way to Switch, is an especially potent case study in how the a surreal, eerie atmosphere and the fractured, tragic story of a broken psyche can combine to create something truly terrifying—not just in momentary frights, but in the sort of dread that crawls under your skin and stays there. And even with the jump to a less powerful, handheld-focused console, the latest release loses none of that impact.
To recap what I said of the PlayStation 4 release, one of the things that makes Layers of Fear 2 so effective is the way it uses the imagery of cinema and role of an actor to tell a haunting story about losing sight of reality. A nightmare trip that starts with a seemingly abandoned cruise liner becomes a journey through film sets and disjointed memories, slowly unfurling the story of an actor who so embodies the characters he plays that he loses his own sense of self. The question of “who am I?” can be a terrifying one, especially when you can’t find an answer to it, and it’s this existential dread that Layers of Fear 2 leans into.
It’s also a fascinating journey through the history of cinema, drawing on imagery from everything from The Wizard of Oz to The Shining as it delves into this actor’s broken mind. Cinematic editing and shot composition inform its level design and the movement from one scene to the next, abandoning expected videogame notions of seamless continuity as the world shifts and warps around you. To open a door in Layers of Fear 2 is to cut to a new scene, but in realtime and with full control of your character—the deliberately disjointed outcome only adding to the sense of unease that permeates. Puzzles are built around framing and perspective, solved more through taking a cinematographer’s eye to your surroundings than a process of logical deduction.
This combination of existential dread and cinematic imagery comes together in the way Layers of Fear 2‘s story unfolds. The line between real and imaginary is already blurred by the film sets and changes in scene, but it gets even less reliable in key moments where a mysterious, disembodied voice tries to direct you. You can question of whether these moments are “real” or representations of the actor’s psychosis, but the far more interesting takeway is how you respond: do you follow instructions or go off script? What does your choice, whichever one you make, mean for the character you’re playing and the actor underneath that mask? Is there even a difference between the two?
Layers of Fear 2 is a surreal journey through increasingly nightmarish scenes, drenched in atmosphere, with a tragic backstory that puts everything into devastating context, and the occasional escape sequence from a monster made all the more terrifying for its lack of any distinct form. It’s equal parts thought-provoking, bleak, and deeply unsettling—the best kind of horror.
That all remains true of the Switch port, which manages to retain all the atmosphere and detail of the original release despite the weaker hardware. Technical sacrifices have been made: the the textures are a little less detailed and the lighting effects less dense, though to an extent that’s barely noticeable unless you’re playing the Switch and original version side by side. The frame rate is choppier here, and there’s no option of a 60 FPS mode—even the capped 30 FPS mode is pushing it, and though there’s an option of unlocked frame rate, it doesn’t really go much higher than 30 anyway.
But none of these are things that dramatically affect the impact that Layers of Fear 2 makes. Even in its brief, momentary chase scenes, this isn’t exactly an action game, so a lower frame rate doesn’t detract in any practical way. And while Switch will always fall behind its more powerful cousins in graphical capability, this version is far from ugly—and, most importantly, the atmosphere that does so much of the heavy lifting is preserved perfectly. And what you get for trading in a little horsepower is the convenience of playing on a handheld, and the freedom to turn the lights off and tuck yourself under the covers while you play, for maximum impact.
The Switch version also adds optional Joy Con controls, with the aim of creating a slightly more immersive experience. In its standard control scheme, both for Switch and in its original incarnation, Layers of Fear 2 revolves around a lot of manual interaction with objects: you don’t just press a button to open a door, but hold a trigger to grab it, then push or pull an analogue stick to simulate the motion of opening it. It may seem a little thing, but it goes a long way to letting players fully embody the character they’re playing, and lends itself to some tense, terrifying moments where you’re scrambling to open a door and don’t have the option to just mash a button. Joy Con motion controls take that a little step further—it’s not a drastic change, but can be an interesting gimmick to play around with.
And finally, there’s Safe Mode (which was also added to the previous release post-launch). Layers of Fear 2 mostly plays as a first-person adventure game, but it also has the occasional chase scene: the aforementioned formless monster suddenly appears, and you have to escape. They’re not not stalker horror hide-and-seek moments, but scripted set-pieces: you have to run, find your way through (fairly simple) mazes, and fumble your way through doors, with the threat of instant death if you take too long to finish the scene.
Safe Mode basically removes the possibility of failure from those moments. Some will argue that this takes some of the tension that the threat of failure creates, but the most crucial thing—the word I’ve written so many times in the course of this review—is atmosphere, and Safe Mode keeps that perfectly intact. Layers of Fear 2 gets its horror from its mood, setting, and story, none of which are lost with this option. Even having played the game before on its original setting, I can promise you that those escapes are still a terrifying adrenaline rush, and Safe Mode is a welcome option for those who’d rather not have to deal with death and retrying.
Even with some minor technical concessions, Layers of Fear 2 is every bit as impactful on Switch as it was on beefier platforms, full of the unsettling atmosphere and disturbing yet insightful psychological horror that Bloober Team is so good at crafting. Only now, there’s the added convenience of handheld play—and the option of playing under the covers with lights turned off for maximum effect.
Title: Layers of Fear 2
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC (Steam)
Release date: 20 May 2021 (Switch); 28 May 2019 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.