FBT is shipping out.
The original Layers of Fear often terrified me. That thing where you’d look one way then look back and it had all completely changed. I was constantly disorientated, on edge, toyed with. But now we’re on a ship? Now I’m gonna be terrified and seasick? Can’t wait.
It’s the 1930s and we’re James, an actor who has accepted a movie role being shot on an ocean liner. But, like Tropic Thunder, our director has set up scenes around the ship for James to (re)act to – and it becomes clear those ‘sets’ are linked to James’ early life as a young boy, when he and his older sister Lily stowed away aboard a liner to escape their abusive father. After being spotted the two were forced into the lower decks to scavenge; eventually James escaped the ship while Lily made like Leonardo DiCaprio. Or did she? Or did he? Are we here, there, did this really happen, is it the director trying to get a performance, is this just James’ method acting? Is it supernatural? Can’t I be Kate Winslet?
The boat and the 1930s is brilliantly realised. You can smell the leather and sea air, and the fear, which we’re instantly into. No sneaking down to 3rd class to dance, no hocking over the side or being King of the World. Nope, the ship is metaphorically sinking as soon as we step on board. We’re basically walking through surreal and intense scenes that reveal their fates and James’ part it in all; problem is, James may be an actor but we’re not playing a part.
The game forgets we’re involved. So many times I’d walk into an area, spot two or three things I fancied fiddling with, and turned to find the room had changed. That worked in the original because it was the lead's skewed mind, but this story needs us to get invested in it before it twists. You’re just hurried through it all, pushed along in a walking sim, like a Ghost Ride where we just watch stuff happening while Tony Todd as the Director narrates a Dickens novel on Audible.
Given James’ background and the 30s setting, you’d expect a lot of classic Hollywood era references. But this lifts from movies wholesale, and largely from the wrong era. Yes, we’ve got Metropolis (one level is a re-enactment of the clock scene), A Trip To The Moon, Nosferatu, but there’s also a Fight Club scene, which arguably ties into the (multiple) endings, but it takes you out of the moment like it’s a nod to us, not James. Why are we not fighting through Universal Horror – the 30s were their heyday.
There’s also The Shining, The Ring, Psycho, and an entire sequence has us discovering the bodies from Se7en. And they ruin that by actually showing what’s in the box – it should be scaring me, instead of making me go “OH SHI-wait, is that Sadako?’
And that’s a huge problem with LoF2. It’s not scary. There’s plenty of jumps but they’re telegraphed in and unthreatening. It’s “SCARED YOU!” parlour tricks that have no true relevance; you never get too scared to walk a corridor – we’re in a ship, it’s built for claustrophobia, but each act takes us off somewhere else, like a disjointed anthology story.
One standout is a scene where I can only walk backwards, which means I’m backing into whatever’s behind me, and I can see a looming shadow getting bigger. It’s a great moment but doesn’t go anywhere, every shock is like a firework – noisy, sudden, intense but then just gone. The ship is filled with mannequins, forming part of the sets. Problem is mannequins are binary – they’re going to move or they’re not; there’s dozens of them and they lose that anticipation; when they do move or appear it’s a relief not a scare – something happened! – but they don’t exactly have much relevance to either plot.
There is one threat – James as a child invented a bogeyman, a formless terror that represented all his fears, mostly of his abusive father. It reappears at certain times, like a half-baked Alien Isolation, causing us to dash or hide until it passes by. And we have to avoid light or flames. I get that they reference little James’ fears – the boilers and being spotted, but we don’t really feel for little James because we’re not him, we’re big James witnessing it all. And he doesn’t really seem bothered.
The original had that great build where you reach whatever horrible piece he needed for the painting, and exhausted, return to the picture which became more grotesque. What was it revealing, what had he done? The whole thing had this compelling sense of doom to it, but here, the director, or whatever forces at work, are trying to make James remember yet there’s little that makes you think.
I got the ‘flame’ ending, which is one of three possibilities. They have been discussed at length on the net, but for me, none of it meant anything. It all ties together but we didn't get to tie it. It’s just a load of flashy jump scares and ominous nothing – since the one thing everyone can agree on is that the endings are ambiguous, it not meaning anything to me is just as valid. It is just a bunch of stuff. Developer Bloober Team followed up the original Layers of Fear with >Observer_, a headache where you spent a lot of time opening doors. This is basically the same, lots of doors and noise but on the Titanic instead of in Bladerunner.
Layers of Fear 2 is all about identity and it is a compelling reveal, but it’s suffering from its own identity crisis. If we’d just started as Big James boarding the ship and that act triggered a flashback to little James trying to survive the horrors - supernatural and natural - of the ship, it could have really worked – an inverted A Plague Tale; those endings would still have made sense, more sense actually. Games like Soma have done this so much better. I’m really disappointed this wasn’t as good as the original; I was looking forward to a 1930’s Hollywood inspired horror aboard an ocean liner. It starts off so well, but then just repeats like a Hollywood remake.