Layers of Fear is yet another Early Access first person horror title released on the Steam storefront. But like a delicious curd in a sea of whey it's managed to rise up above its peers. In spite of its Early Access state I believe Layers of Fear can stand toe to toe with recent horror goliaths like P.T. and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Let me expand on this, dear readers.
The game starts off with you, a mysterious man with a limp, standing in (presumably) his foyer. Like Gone Home and other atmospheric "walking sims" before it, Layers starts with a slow burn of atmosphere. As you stumble from room to room you'll find bits of interactive narrative that tells a tragic tale - one that I won't spoil. You can explore at your pace and to the extent that you'd like... or you can single mindedly search for a key or item to simply move the story along, but I'd recommend really taking everything in. Not only is every room lovingly crafted and filled with interactables, but you'll potentially miss out on important story points.
And potential spooks.
Graphically this maybe the best looking Unity engine title I've ever seen, showing off shadows and lighting effects on par with that of the Fox Engine's P.T., which explains Layers' hefty spec requirements - even my relatively beefy pc began to chug along (the devs have stated that optimization is a key goal during EA development). It just looks gorgeous, like a profoundly weird oil painting; deep and dark and, well, weird. It looks at times like the devs ransacked the Frictional Games' Weird Art Museum but it manages to (obviously) fit thematically.
Sound, I think it's safe to say, is even more critical to a good horror ANYTHING than looks. And Layers of Fear subscribes to that school of thought, thankfully. The sound design is maliciously delicious. Doors slam loudly behind you, shrill chords accompany jumpscares, your heavy footfalls fill the general silence. The best example I can give of the sound design at work was when I stumbled back into a room I'd previously been in. As I glanced around I heard a bang directly behind me and spinned appropriately to face the threat. To my relief it was apparently nothing and spun back around. THAT was my first mistake. Suddenly a painting on the wall... well, I won't spoil it for you. While the sound design is mostly there for mood it is perhaps the most immersive aspect of this game.
All of these aspects married together makes, for my money, the scariest (current) game of 2015. I was on edge ten minutes in and for the duration of this little title. It's just so creepy, so horrific. Besides dealing with topics like loss and mental illness, I think a lot of creative people will find SOMETHING to relate to in the overarching story. Artists are always pursuing their magnum opus, perfection. And for some it never comes; worse still are the artists that lose their minds in the pursuit, raving madly at the world through clenched teeth and darting eyes.
Are there jumpscares? Yes, absolutely. But atmosphere is king here, and you'll spend most of this game debating which door to open, which painting to stare at, which item to examine. And you will, short of the stoutest of souls, be frightened throughout.
So is Layers of Fear the horror game for you? If you absolutely hate the limited interactivity in "walking sim" games, you should probably avoid this one. Lots happens and there are lots of things to investigate but... you're mostly walking, that's for sure. And if you're nervous about the whole Early Access thing (or refuse to buy into such a concept) then I would recommend following it to release and then making an educated decision.
But if you don't have any of the above mentioned qualms I think you should snag this one immediately, put the headphone on, and shut the lights out.
The muse sings a shrill song for you, one only you can hear. Follow it, and don't falter.