Sometimes people love to boast about a certain game and how good it is and I find that happening often with horror games. No matter how bad or none scary the game is, there is always someone telling you (or telling the internet) how scary that game is and how much they scream and jumped at it. I first saw this happening with the games based on the popular creepypasta Slenderman, but I have also seen it with a couple RPG Maker games like Misao or Mad Father. That is actually something that disappoints me quite a lot. As a fan of horror games, I am always sad when something is not as good as their potential lets on and when something is just outright bad.
Layers of Fear falls in the category of games that I heard a lot of. I remember that when the game got finished and released on PS4, a radio personality from my country was boasting on how she thought the game was so interesting and scary and I got pretty hyped. I already knew the game from its Early Access on Steam (although I never bought it) and I had been following the game for quite a while.
It was love at first sight. The game described itself as the story about a mad painter from the Romantic movement, from around the 19th century, a dive into the mind of an artist and of one of my favorite Art movements which included people like Edgar Allan Poe and Delacroix. As a lover of Art, I was pretty hyped.
I saw the game getting released and waited, anxiously, for a sale to finally buy it and try it. I must say that my hype and my love for Art killed the game for me.
The interesting artwork and visuals presented in the artwork for the game and in the trailers was a backdrop filled with paintings that I could recognized and some I had seen in real life. I do not know why these was put in the game rather than creating new artwork to symbolize the artist’s obsession, his fall from grace, his apparent mental illness. I know that these paintings (that are repeated many times throughout the house) could be very well a taunting to the artist’s unfinished magnum opus (that is fancy for master piece), however it felt cheap to me. I recognized these paintings some of which I knew the story behind them and that broke every symbolism that could be connected to your main character.
Another thing that bothered me were the visuals of the game, while mostly Victorian, I have the sensation that some of the elements used are Baroque (which is not too far fetch) but other floral elements seem from the 20th century.
Notice the wall lamps in picture above? They look immensely pretty, but when searched online about Victorian decoration and how lamps look liked during the Victorian period, some looked similar, but the movement that was known for using floral motifs everywhere was Art Nouveau…
You can see where this is going. I am nitpicking on a game because of the lamp models in the game. Holy shit. I know! But these things really bother me. I am not always aware why these things bother me so much, however in Layers of Fear I know why. Because nothing is used in the games advantage.
You know who is featured in that painting? Antonietta Gonsalvus, daughter of Petrus Gonsalvus, a noble from the 17th century who suffered from hypertrichosis (aka the werewolf syndrome). And what propose does this make? What commentary does it make on the game? None. Petrus Gonsalvus lived as noble (although he was not seen as totally human by his piers) and had a pretty nice life according to what I gather online. He was not an outcast and married a noblewoman while he was in the Netherlands.
Is it a commentary of the relationship between the artist and his wife because Gonsalvus and Lady Catherine’s marriage may have inspired The Beauty and the Beast? That is a pretty obscure detail to make commentary on.
Although there are some obvious ones, like Goya’s work being featured, one of the paintings that was featured in the promotional artwork was a twisted version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Lady with an Ermine, a portrait of a Italian noblewoman Cecilia Gallerarani who is known as the mistress of Ludovico Sforza.
But I did not find another clever play on a painting like this one. It picks a noblewoman, a patron of arts and twists her in a way that represents the decay of the artist’s own mind but also a decay of beauty that is somewhat present in the game. The paintings seem to be chosen almost at random and I cannot make a connection between the game and these paintings.
Possibly, if I took some time off I could find connections between the paintings and the game, but I would have to do some digging into the people who painted them, what is the painting about, who is painted on the canvas, what is the painting on the canvas. The connection is not apparent; I do not think we can assume every gamer cares or knows as much about Art as I do or is even is interested to find out.
Another nitpick that I have, but that really broke the game for me is the art by the artist himself. It is digital art. It is great digital art but it breaks the impression and makes me forget that this is the 19th century and this is a Victorian setting, much like the maybe Art Nouveau lamps from before.
But Aya, Dishonored’s were digital too. How come you don’t bitch about that?, I hear you ask.
Well, the art director of the (first) Dishonored was inspired by Art and it is very clear he tried to make them look like paintings. There is an effort put into the paintings to make them look like they have brushes and fit in the Victorian setting. I dare to say that they have a very William Turner-like quality.
In Layers of Fear you see no such effort and that breaks my immersion.
But is the game scary?
No. It is not scary. The game tries to make think it is scary by using a dark ambient, destroyed rooms, blood, disfigured paintings and Pyramid Head, but it is not scary in the slightest and most of it comes from the fact that for most of the game there is nothing. There is no tension, nothing I should fear for because there is nothing at stake. I have nothing to fear because I have nothing to fight for or anything to defend and the imagery is not particularly disturbing. To think that with the story that they have they could have done some very risky things like what was done in Silent Hill or System Shock 2 or even D, but there is nothing that makes me fear for this man’s life or his sanity. This is Dear Esther with an enemy from Silent Hill Downpour.
The few scary moments I had with this game came from jump scares in which this one monster would show up right in face and scream BE SCAREEEEDD!!!
Yes, it scared me, for 5 seconds. But I did not go to bed thinking about it, it was not creeping into my mind or using any of my fears against me.
While not a horror game, NIER made me more afraid than a horror game because it creeped into my very mind and used my fear of failure and of being forgotten against me and me sit down and think about these things. It forced me to do so and digest my fears.
When I finished Layers of Fear, I felt nothing but a sour taste of my mouth. It is that feeling that you have when you see some food that looks really great but then tastes blank and mild, like the person who was making it was afraid to add herbs instead of salt because people may not like it.
Now, I do not know how much was lost in translation, if anything at all. The game is Polish and I do not know if there is anything lost while the game was translated like what happened with Pathologic or The Witcher series, but I like to think that the game is much less crude and that the main character does not speak with twelve kinds of shit in his mouth.
And by that mean that the dialogues are shit.
And the puzzles?
LET ME TALK ABOUT THIS LITTLE BITCH RIGHT HERE.
Most of the game is about navigating the house and getting stuck in places and either waiting or finding a key to unlock the next room to go to and at a point you reach the baby’s room and this part INFURIATED ME not because it was hard but because the lighting of the room did not let me see where the key was and it hurt my eyes.
Usually, I am pretty distracted. I know that I do not see things that are right in front of my nose and I get frustrated because of that. But this was worse, the game design itself did not allow me to see the key that was right in front of me nor it tell me that there was key in the place where the key was until I was in the right position and decided to go HEY AYA HERE’S A KEY.
When people ask me about this game, I tell them about this and let them decide on their own.
Other than that, the game is pretty uneventful. Puzzles are never the big deal they were in other survival horror games and makes me miss the puzzles in Resident Evil 4.
And the story?
It is okay. Nothing what the trailers and the Steam or GOG page promises, but it is pretty okay.
Spoilers will be featured for here on. Skip it if you want to.
The story is about the main character, a young promising painter, who has a wife and child but keeps being bothered by the constant noise to the point that he becomes addicted to drinking. Became pushing people away and painting gory stuff and one day, while drunk, he hit his wife and she left. She got burned and he got them back into their house but he neglected both is wife and child to paint and she committed suicide. So he decided that it was a good idea to use parts of her body to paint. No word of the child, there is a DLC for that apparently.
I swear to God that when I started the game I thought the painter had tuberculosis because he speaks of cold sweats. Tuberculosis was all the rage during the Victorian period was was considered the illness of the Romantic movement (Lord Byron wrote “I should like to die from consumption” and Chopin’s lover, George Sand better known as Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin wrote that “Chopin coughs with infinite grace.” in a letter), but I was not disappointed to find that he had drinking issues which was equally interesting and very common in artists. What I was disappointed about is that the game barely used that.
The themes of domestic violence and mistreatment of family members are brought on by small imagery throughout the game that never leaves much impact and some of it made outright confused.
For example, there is a scene in which you see a doll representing a toddler hitting the edge of a table which repeats over and over again until you go through the same path (that is a thing the game likes you do, you either go through the path we want you do or you go back to the start) and what is that mean to imply? That the child hit her head? Mistreatment of the child? What are you trying to tell me game? Did that actually happened or did you decided it was meant to be symbolic because of the DLC?
This is a very frustrating game that offered me nothing but annoyance and neh. This is why you should never hype up games.