At Universal Studios Hollywood, there used to be an attraction called the House Of Horrors. It was a short maze populated by actors dressed as classic Universal monsters like the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster, who would jump out to spook patrons while being careful to never actually touch them. Visitors traveled from room to room, admired the scary but harmless stuff that had been placed there for them, jumped at the liberally doled-out unexpected noises, then exited into the daylight and left the whole experience behind them. It was more titillating than terrifying, but that’s exactly what it was going for: the horror equivalent of a sugar rush.
Layers Of Fear, by Polish studio Bloober Team, wears its more sophisticated inspirations on its sleeve—the claustrophobic Repulsion and The Shining, the already legendary P.T.—but it most closely resembles the charming but toothless House Of Horrors. This would be fine, but the game clearly aspires to be something more than just a digital spook house and weighs itself down with literary pretensions almost to the point of sinking. Layers Of Fear is not a good story well told, but when it cuts loose and flexes its horror muscles, it delivers the kind of controlled, almost comforting scares perfect for satisfying a horror sweet tooth.
As horror stories often are, Layers Of Fear is heavy on atmosphere and light on detail. Players are cast as an eccentric, unnamed artist who, at the beginning of the tale, is living alone in a creepy Victorian mansion. (For horror bonus points, the story even begins on a dark and stormy night.) Once the painter enters his studio and removes the sheet that was ominously covering an unfinished painting, the house begins to deform and reconfigure itself, sending the artist on a convoluted journey to gather the grisly ingredients he needs to complete his magnum opus. Along the way, he is accosted by ghosts, rats, and damnatory voices from his past and his own mind.
The artist himself is the biggest problem with the story. He is devoid of personality in a way that suggests he is meant to fit into one of several horror-protagonist archetypes: the fallen everyman, the chillingly vague cipher, or maybe the weakling pushed around by circumstances. In execution, though, he’s just a generic horror “bad man”—he drinks too much, he’s unkind to his family, he obsesses over his work, etc. We learn more about him over the course of the game, but we never get any information that changes or recontextualizes the broad strokes we get in the first hour or so. As a character study, Layers Of Fear is a portrait that gets more detailed but never more meaningful.
If the story here has any value, it’s found in the moments when it strives to be an allegory rather than a character drama. The painter’s crippling artistic block is an intermittently explored theme, made manifest by the recurring magnum opus that he spends the game struggling to finish. The labyrinthine house will sometimes transform from a road of trials into a dungeon, trapping the artist in rooms with no exits or offering doors that open to brick walls. Paintings themselves frequently behave antagonistically, and the game wrings several scares out of images transforming, flying off walls, or sneaking up on the player. It’s a world where art is uncooperative and incomprehensible, both physically and in the mind of the artist.
Those paintings and their associated cat scares, by the way, are two for a penny here. For a game all about navigating a massive, changing hellscape, Layers Of Fear is not above taking shortcuts. It uses and reuses vaguely spooky paintings as a shortcut to artistic bona fides: Goya’s Black Paintings are a common sight, some of the eerier Titians and Friedrich landscapes make repeat appearances, and Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez is given a particularly rigorous workout. Horror staples like rats and creepy dolls are thrown in as shortcuts to easy scares with only tangential relevance to the plot or themes. Even the script half-asses it, communicating its lead character’s alcoholism by leaving wine bottles lying all over the place, but never explaining with any specificity how his dependency affected his family and professional life.
The most memorable sequence in Layers Of Fear kicks off when the artist is locked in a nursery with nothing to do but wind up a miniature merry-go-round in the center of the room. Doing so locks your perspective to the toy’s as it spins, every rotation revealing the room to be even more hideous than it was before. In this moment, the game steals control from you, forcing you to confront the grotesque images it’s preparing just off-screen and offers no hint of how much longer you’ll have to endure them. It has nothing to do with advancing the paint-by-numbers story or character, but it’s a great popcorn-horror set piece. When Layers Of Fear aims for the head with its sordid tale of bad men and the bad things they do, it misses. It only hits when it aims for the heart instead, when it allows itself to be no more ambitious than that theme-park haunted house.