Horror has few avenues it can travel in the gaming landscape. One clear path is adventure, which offers several ways to intrigue and frighten daring travelers. Some developers choose a walking simulator-esque romp through jarring environments. Others prefer a glorified game of hide and seek. Bloober Team has decided that walking 80% of the time and running from monsters 20% of the time is the right route — which is about how often Layers of Fear 2 is good versus bad.
Intuitively and cinematically, chasing is a fun and terrifying way to involve the player. In practice — at least the way the developers have done it here — chasing creates discord in the interactive experience. Historically, Bloober Team has been praised critically and by their fans for the incredible visuals, sound design, and horrific subject matter in their games. Conversely, the chase sequences have been panned in each game. Why the developers chose to rely on this design choice — even in a relatively small part of the game — perplexes me. The reason this is such a big deal is that at the outset, I was completely immersed in this strange world with breadcrumbs of plot for me to follow. Then once the first chase sequence occurred, I was nervous about future chases, but not for the right reasons. My trepidation was more indicative of annoyance than the fear nurtured prior. As a result, my immersion was almost constantly lessened as I dreaded the ever-looming future surprise death or chase.
But this doesn’t completely detract from the wonderful experience surrounding players throughout the game. LoF2 follows an unspecified protagonist — you — as they traverse a ship at sea. Sometimes the ship is doing just fine; sometimes it’s a waterlogged, fiery mess. The storytelling in LoF2 won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, as it relies on withholding information constantly, and the chunks don’t always make sense in isolation. In fact, the chronology at the end of the game isn’t even entirely clear. What we do know is that something bad happened here, you’re involved, and acting is your occupation.
As I suggested, the end of the game doesn’t offer clarity, which isn’t always bad, but the game basically says that in order to get the whole picture, you have to play again and make new choices. This isn’t great, but what makes it worse is that players will have to endure more chases and branching paths that may or may not lead to new content. The whole endeavor sounds like a chore, and I didn’t bite.
I wanted to, though, primarily because I love the world Bloober Team built. The haunting and less-than-spooky visuals are all phenomenal, combined with expert use of silence, creepy sounds, and unpleasant instrumentation. This is what draws people to their games: production. Narrative and game design are definitely qualities some will take issue with, but few can question the aesthetics. I can’t think of any game with better art or graphics. True, LoF2 doesn’t boast a whole lot of animation or creative camera work, but we’re essentially walking through a three-dimensional portrait.
One last criticism: controls. In order to accentuate immersion when doors or desk drawers have to be opened, players have to click, hold, and physically move the mouse in the direction desired. This is fantastic — when it works correctly. I’d say about 20% of the time the doors either get stuck mid-opening or have to be opened using the opposite direction (i.e. when pulling a door open, the mouse has to be pushed forward). This was a problem in the first LoF as well, and I know others took issue with it then. While this won’t significantly hurt the experience, it’s odd that the problem hasn’t been rectified, at least in frequency.
This feels like a negative review for a game that I think is enjoyable enough for some, but that might be because there’s such potential here. No game, including other horror titles, looks as good as Layers of Fear 2, yet it falls incredibly short in design. Even the story, which I personally enjoyed, is needlessly enigmatic and overly “artsy.” Layers of Fear 2 isn’t for everyone, but for those who want to dive into a visually stunning, off-putting environment, this will sate.