Developed by Bloober Team
Published by GUN Media
Available on PC through Steam
From their inception, walking simulators have always been a controversial genre. Some considered the change of pace to be refreshing. Without frantic gunplay or goombas to stomp on, developers are free to focus on developing a gripping narrative. After all, when story is your showstopper, all those chaotic firefights and precision jumps are just distracting gnomes on an otherwise beautiful garden. Others would argue that those sexy gnomes are called gameplay. Gameplay being what primarily makes a game a game, and not a movie, book, or similar waste of time. Regardless of which camp you fall into, everyone can agree on what walking simulators have primarily become: something for people on Twitch/YouTube to overreact to.
For the record, I’m actually part of that first camp. While there are plenty of ways to innovate games through new tech and increasingly complex gameplay, we often forget that just as much can be gained from stripping things down. Let Duke Nukem: Forever always remind us of the foibles of overambition. While the world marches towards sandboxes and console-spanning franchises, maybe a few narrow corridors and spooky ghosts are just what we need. Or it would be what we need, if so many of them weren’t shit.
Yes, I probably need to take back my insult to the jump-scare streamers of the world (not that they care anyways, they stopped being able to process shame around the time they discovered Five Nights at Freddy’s). Even without their gibbering manchild pandering, walking simulators would have done a fair march into their own grave. As it turns out, not having to program AI, physics, combat, explosions, crafting, etc., is very cheap and easy. Anyone with a basic understanding of Unity and a vague idea of a plot could now make a game. Which means a lot of people with no real talent made one very specific kind of game.
Now this has been a long intro even for me, but it’s important to qualify what it is about the original Layers of Fear that makes it so special. With so many examples of how to do the genre wrong, we must recognize those that do it right. Stripped down of all mechanics aside from movement and opening doors, the people at Bloober Team poured all their time and money into perfecting the atmosphere. It was pure distilled terror, rife with a rich atmosphere, and focused in its narrative without being rushed. The fact that so many developers fail to deliver this refined product makes what they accomplished all the more special. You can read my original review if you need my longer thoughts. If I were to review it again with knowledge of how far down the walking simulator genre had gone, I would have given it a 5/5.
Now with Layers of Fear 2, we’re all here to see if Bloober team can strike gold twice. Well, three times actually, as they also made the exceptional Observer. So before I get in any further, there are plenty of reviews for Layers of Fear 2 already published (word to the wise, please don’t come out with your game the month before E3 if you want Ted to review it in a timely fashion), so chances are you’ve already heard that people don’t really like it. It’s currently sitting at a 6/10 on steam compared to the original’s 9/10 (though don’t ask me how they calculate that), which is rather harsh considering the consensus seems to be, “decent, but not as good as the first.” It’s certainly not the first case of a game getting beaten with the poorly received sequel stick, but this is an Andromeda level of distaste. Which is a bit disheartening, because I think most of the reviews miss the mark. Layers of Fear 2 isn’t bad, it’s just unfocused. For everything it does worse, it does something else a little better. Unfortunately, what it does better doesn’t add up to a greater product.
First thing to note is that this is a thematic sequel rather than a continuation of the first game’s plot. Whereas in Layers of Fear 1 you played a nameless faceless artist forced to confront the tragedy of his past through a slow surreal exploration of his increasingly horrifying house, in Layers of Fear 2 you play as a nameless faceless actor forced to confront the tragedy of his past on a spooky boat. While the layers in the first game referred to layers of paint and denial, this game is about the layers of masks you put on as an actor to become different characters. It all sets up to be a great evolution on the concepts of “layers” and “fear.” Unfortunately, Captain Actor Man’s adventures aboard the S.S. Spooky just aren’t as interesting as Lord Fingerpaint’s House of Horrors.
God, I’m going to have a hard time talking about this without spoiling anything. It’s always hard to complain about story-focused games, but extra hard when ruining those twists and turns renders the game pointless. So just bear with me here. So, the big problem with Layers of Fear 2 is that it focuses on two characters rather than one. While all of the set-piece plot points do make sense in the end, by forcing them to be applicable to two different stories you decrease the amount of narrative weight you can load into any event. The monsters are also too generic to really feel menacing, especially when you factor in the goofy way they shuffle about. I know this is way too vague to make sense, but just trust me. Play the game, and by the time you figure out what’s going on, you’ll be wondering if the build was really worth it.
More easily discussed are the issues with pacing. In the first Layers of Fear, you can spend a good hour or so just puttering around the house checking all the drawers and cabinets for notes. Once you start the game, it’s a good few hallways before anything begins to seem amiss. You’ll be about 40% through the whole game before the first monster even appears. In Layers of Fear 2, you wake up in a boat that is currently on fire and filling with water. By the end of level 1, a mannequin monster is chasing you through ship’s hold. The pacing is uncomplicatedly worse. As a result, many of the scares are improperly built and lose their edge.
Now aside from the story and pacing, Layers of Fear 2 is actually better (or at least equal) in pretty much every way. First and foremost, there aren’t 50 quintillion drawers to open. They decided to be significantly more modest in the amount of things you can fiddle with, and thank God for that. The puzzles in Layers of Fear 2 are also actually puzzles. There are a few times where you’ll have to use your noggin to get by. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but the part in the factory stood out as being particularly engaging. There’s also a new game+ mode, that adds new puzzles and rooms. It’s actually necessary to complete this second run to get the most secret of secrets, which is a nice way to increase the runtime without feeling forced.
Speaking of the factory, there’s also far more variety in the locations you’ll slowly walk through. While you start out on a boat, the game will take you through several levels inspired by your own past. From childhood fantasy to the film sets from your previous projects, levels serve as a series of non-chronological surreal snapshots. You’ll go from the boat, to a pirate ship, to a bank robbery, to a house, all without breaking flow. The trade off here is that none of them are as well realized as the goopy art mess that was the first game’s house.
I also feel like I’m obligated to mention that Tony Todd voices the director. I have no idea if the director is even a real character or some kind of a figment of your imagination, but Tony Todd is always great. I wish all of the characters were voiced by Tony Todd. I will gladly pay money for a Tony Todd DLC, where he voices the innocent little boy and responsible yet frightened preteen girl. Bonus dollars if he also voices the barking dogs, and sings all the songs that come on the radio (or at least hums along).
So with improvements to the gameplay, variety, and Tony Todd, why does Layers of Fear 2 not measure up to Layers of Fear? Well, it’s because all of that other stuff matters less than the story and pacing. Horror lives and dies on atmosphere. If you take 20% of the budget you used for polishing up the moldy bookshelves and creepy hallways and use it to develop a pirate ship set, it makes your game at least that 20% less scary. Copy paste for pacing, characterization, and monsters, and you’re left with a game that just doesn’t hit the mark.
The impression I’m ultimately left with is that Layers of Fear 2 feels like the first of the franchise. Before they figured out how to really nail the spooky hallway vibe, or how to really fuck with a character’s backstory. I guarantee that if this were the first game, it would be receiving far more praise. Alas, we’re all cursed with the memory of what they have done better. While I appreciate their attempts to innovate, I’d say stick with what you know. There’s no problem with sticking to a spooky house, as long as it’s an exceptional spooky house. Layers of Fear was an exquisite spooky house. Layers of Fear 2 is a decent haunted carnival ride.
Layers of Fear 2 is an excellent horror game. It’s an extra treat for those who hunt for the myriad of hidden references. But it’s less scary than the first, which is kind of important for a horror game.