Reviewed on PC.
Layers of Fear 2, a walking simulator horror game from Polish devs Bloober Team, starts off promisingly enough. You play as a Hollywood actor who has taken on a film role with an enigmatic director aboard a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic. The game starts you en media res, and you realize that something has gone very wrong on this ship, and you need to get off as soon as possible.
One nasty ship
Haunting, claustrophobic environments combine with great sound design to create a deeply unsettling environment. The ship is completely abandoned except for hundreds of creepy mannequin automatons.
Gameplay consists mainly of exploring the ship, examining objects you find strewn about, and completing the occasional puzzle. All the while, you’re being taunted by the baritone voice of the director, demanding that you follow his instructions.
There’s a hint of Silent Hill 2; you get the sense that you did something awful and that the events of the game are a form of penance. The game combines a creeping sense of dread with the occasional jump scare to great effect.
The environments are initially wonderful. The game plays with your sense of time, space, and causality. In one memorable moment, you enter a small room and the game throws a jump scare at you. You dash out of the room, thinking you’re about to be killed, and realize that the room opens out into a totally different area.
Even though game environments are wholly constructed, unreal spaces, we expect them to be reliable, predictable places with a sense of fairness and continuity. Bloober Team manipulates this expectation by constantly screwing with you. Just when you think you understand where and when you are, you discover that you’re somewhere else far worse.
That sinking feeling
The first few hours were so scary that I had trouble returning to the game to finish it. I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to wander the hallways searching for answers, especially after I realized that some of these mannequins come to life and chase you. If they catch you, they swallow you with what looks like their whole damn bodies while screaming like a synthesizer murdering a box of cats. The entire experience was terrifying, but I soldiered on.
I wish I hadn’t.
About four hours in, you realize that Layers of Fear 2 only has a few tricks and you’ve seen them all. But the game drags on for several more hours. Hallways, small rooms, locked doors, blood everywhere, a bajillion mannequins, monsters chasing you. Familiarity breeds boredom, then contempt. If Layers of Fear 2 was half as long, it would’ve been ten times as scary.
LoF2 feels like it falls victim to the demand that games fill a certain amount of time. But there’s a reason why most horror movies are short; there are only so many times you can satisfyingly ratchet up and release the tension. Eventually, the devs run out of tricks, and what was once terrifying is now banal. You can only jump-scare me with ghost mannequins so many times before it just starts to be annoying.
At its heart, Layers of Fear 2 is a walking simulator, and those games only work if you’re emotionally engaged with the story. At some point, the scares needed to give way to engagement with the plot and genuine concern for your character, but this handoff is fumbled. But Bloober does such a thorough job obfuscating the plot that you are never able to engage with it.
Most of the exposition is vague, and it’s not strictly clear why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sure, you want off this ship, but there’s no ticking clock providing pressure (even imagined pressure). More successful horror games like Alien: Isolation provide an implacable foe and a rapidly disintegrating death trap of a space station. Better walking simulators like Firewatch and Gone Home take you on an emotional journey through the minds of the main characters.
The game is light on plot and heavy on theme, and most of it is delivered through the director’s snarls. It starts off being frightening and ends up feeling like you’re getting berated by a particularly vague, abusive theatre coach. He keeps insisting that I “transform” but he’s never specific as to what, and for what reason. Worse still, by the last two acts, the director starts to feel less like a mad artist and more like a teenager reading bad poetry.
The actual plot is barely revealed by the end. Bloober Team expects me to play through the game again to get a fuller explanation of the story. In the epilogue of the game, a character I’ve never seen before snarls that I’m “not ready” but I was: ready to be done with this game.
The game offers you a few “choices” that at first feel innovative. Slight spoilers ahead.
At one point, the director demands that you fire a musket pistol at one of two mannequins. One is dressed like a man and the other is dressed like a woman. At first, I tried to shoot the male mannequin, but the director screamed at me and forced me to make the choice again. I tried again, with the same result. Okay, I figured - the game actually just wants me to shoot the female mannequin, so I did and the game proceeded.
Later on, the director demands that you choose instinct over reason, but I kept choosing reason until he eventually allows me to pick it. Usually games try to provide the illusion of choice, but this game actually provides the illusion that you’re being controlled, and that there’s no way forward without obedience. While you are still following some part of the game dev’s plan, you are defying the director, the character who appears most in control of your fate. I couldn’t wait to see where the game took this idea.
But LoF2 goes nowhere with this, and it has little if any impact on the ending of the game, aside from a single cut scene.
I started LoF2 uncertain if I could complete it because it scared me so much. By the end, I completed it only out of a sense of professional duty. But once the scares stopped, I just kept my finger on the sprint button, trying to outrun my own sense of boredom and disappointment.