Review: Layers of Fear VR (PlayStation VR)


Layers of Fear seems like a game that should be a perfect fit for VR. A first-person psychological horror with an emphasis on atmosphere is the textbook case of something that should benefit greatly from virtual reality’s ability to shut out the rest of the world and let a game overwhelm the senses. And with the original game’s captivating story to go with a terrifying journey through an artist’s obsessive desire to create his masterpiece kept perfectly intact, Layers of Fear VR should be a surefire hit.

But you’ll notice a lot of “shoulds” in that introduction. Sadly, a substandard VR port means it never comes close to being the game a virtual reality Layers of Fear should be, failing to capture the opportunities that VR brings and undermining a lot of what made the original so good in the first place.

It starts with the control scheme. PlayStation Move controllers are the only option, and while they certainly have their place, freely moving about in a 3D space isn’t one of their strengths. Layers of Fear VR uses an awkward arrangement of face buttons to walk around because that’s the best option available with this controller setup, but the result is a game that makes fumbling with controls a constant distraction. A tendency to get stuck on objects makes the situation even worse, and even the ability to use movement of your real hands to reach out and grab objects in the game—the main benefit of Move controllers in a game like this—isn’t as reliable as it needs to be. The worst part is that this could have been entirely avoided just by making a standard PS4 controller an option.

The other major problem is that, perhaps counterintuitively, the jump to VR really hinders the atmosphere that the original Layers of Fear built so well. The graphical downgrade needed to get the game running on PlayStation VR leaves environments feeling lifeless, and the objects you pick up and examine, through which the game does so much of its storytelling, are often blurry and lacking in detail. (By contrast, the Switch version of Layers of Fear 2 is a great example of necessary technical downgrade that still preserves the game’s atmosphere.)

One of the most memorable things about the original game is the main character’s laboured, uneven amble. Through something as simple as a head-bob and the sound design of footsteps, Layers of Fear managed to convey the feeling of an injured man for whom just walking is difficult, adding another layer to the already tense atmosphere. In Layers of Fear VR that iconic head-bob is just… gone. The footsteps are still there, but more muted, and without the staggered, uneven head movements to go with it, the effect is lost.

One of the main appeals of virtual reality is the chance for deeper immersion than ever. Layers of Fear was already a deeply immersive game to begin, but instead of enhancing that, Layers of Fear VR introduces new distractions and undermines the original game’s strengths.

But there’s one thing the move to VR does very, very well: heighten the tension. Even with the compromised atmosphere, the surreal set design, unsettling narrative, and well-placed jump scares make the journey through Layers of Fear a tense and frightening one. With a headset strapped on and the outside world completely blocked out, the impact of those things comes tenfold. If my memory can be trusted, I played the original game in one or two sittings, but in Layers of Fear VR—even having seen all these scares before—I struggled to play more than 20-odd minutes at a time without needing a break, just to give my heart a rest.

For all the struggles of the VR adaptation, the core of Layers of Fear VR is still Layers of Fear, a clever, evocative psychological horror that takes players on a terrifying journey into the mind of a tortured artist. He returns to his home to finally complete his magnum opus, but an unravelling grip on reality turns that endeavour into a nightmare. This place he once called home has turned into a monster, familiar hallways rearranging themselves around him and paintings on the walls seemingly coming alive to taunt him. As the journey through his psyche pieces his history together, Layers of Fear pulls together tragic, terrifying image of a man so obsessed with his work that he let it destroy his life.

It’s a haunting exploration of the way ambition, left unchecked, can so consume you that you end up sacrificing everything. It’s a look at the weight of expectation, and how one’s own self expectations can be the most demanding of all. It’s a dive into the existential dread that comes with defining yourself by your work and starting to see your ability falter—if you lose the ability to do this one thing that you’ve made your entire life, what’s left?

This makes for a captivating tale in its own right: layered and complex, shocking yet nuanced, insightful in the questions it asks and the themes it deftly traverses. But it’s also the foundation for the sort of horror wraps itself around you, digging its way into your mind and taking hold, creating a sense of unease and discomfort that sticks with you. This is what Layers of Fear has always done best, and the VR version is no exception.

I just wish it did a better job of fully realising the possibilities of virtual reality. Layers of Fear VR manages to ramp up the terror and intensity thanks to the sensory overload and isolation inherent in the medium, but it’s held back by awkward controls that serve as a constant distraction and detract from the atmosphere that the original game did such a good job of creating. Layers of Fear is a riveting piece of psychological horror, but the VR version falls short.

Title: Layers of Fear VR
Developer: Bloober Team, Incuvo S.A.
Publisher: Bloober Team

Platforms: PlayStation VR (reviewed), PC (Steam)
Release date: 30 April 2021 (PSVR); 11 December 2019 (PC)

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


About Author

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.