By Michael Stoll 31 March 2018
I made the decision to play through the twice-a-month free Xbox Live Game with Gold titles recently so I could always be producing interesting content for you kind folks to take a look at. Since Layers of Fear has been taken off the “free” category already, I might have missed the mark a bit on that goal, but hey, better late than never. Without further ado, here is the first of (hopefully) several free XBL games for those of us cheap enough to download them but with poor enough impulse control to own a three-terabyte hard-drive.
Top Line: Layers of Fear offers a compelling narrative and some inspired and creative moments of interesting level design in spite of some cliche scares and occasionally unconvincing voice-overs. 3/5.
The most interesting part of Layers of Fear is perhaps the most understated. The underlying narrative of the game is surprisingly profound for a short four or five hour campaign. It centers around a struggling artist with a disturbing past as he attempts to create his greatest painting while being haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghosts of his past. While there are several jump scares and constant reminders that, yes, this is a horror game, I was most interested in solving the great mystery that seemed to surround this character’s life. What was he painting? What happened to him that drove him to madness? The end result is both satisfying and interesting enough for the game to carry itself throughout the run time and offer enough reason to want to play it again in the hunt for collectibles.
The level design is fairly loud, as one might expect from a horror game. There’s plenty of grotesque gore and zombified monster attacks abound. The game primarily moves the player around through ever-changing series of rooms and doors in the main character’s home. Most of the scares, essentially what drives the player to keep moving, however, are fairly typical of your twentieth-century horror fiction. There’s creepy writing on the walls, random flying furniture, sudden collapsing floors, and other scares typical of the genre. That’s not to say they’re ineffective. I was genuinely jumping out of my chair a couple times. Occasionally, though, the end result is that some of these moments aren’t as effective as they could be. The moments when the game breaks conventions and focuses on what makes the story unique, however (typically involving the many paintings of the game) are the strongest.
Since I’ve talked about the stronger parts of the game, I’ll finish on what I felt was the weakest part. Throughout the game, the player encounters a few mementos that trigger brief, audio-only flashbacks. Some of these asides are not flashbacks but rather the player character narrating gathering painting materials. These are great; they effectively communicate to the audience what the character’s mind is like. The other ones? Not so much. Moments that should be of greater impact, such as discovering vital information about how the character went mad, are almost comical. The voices just don’t match the characters, or at least how they should be acting in the face of crisis. For instance, the main character acted with more emotion when talking to a dog than receiving bad news about his wife. Since these moments keep popping up throughout, they stick out in a big way.
Bottom Line: I give Layers of Fear a 3/5. The underlying story is well-developed and interesting. The level design, despite being fairly conventional, is effective in a more than a few choice moments. Some of the voice-over scenes, however, left me wanting, and their critical nature in the story made them more of a constant pain than a minor inconvenience.