I really didn't know anything about Layers Of Fear ahead of time. It was one of those random Games With Gold freebies that I came across in my library and said "when the heck did I get that?" But it worked out well because my wife and I were looking for spooky things to play on our weekly October date night leading up to Halloween.
So basically Layers Of Fear is a "walking simulator." Y'know, one of those games where the goal is just to explore an environment and figure out the story usually by looking at items or reading journal entries or whatever. There's nothing to fight, nothing to kill you. Really nothing much to do but walk through the story. At first it reminded me a lot of Gone Home. The main difference is that I ultimately found Gone Home to be pretty boring. Layers Of Fear instead rapidly grew into a very bizarre and messed up walking simulator. At times it was genuinely creepy.
The story lasted about four hours, which felt maybe a tad too long for one of these games to me. But overall it was an appropriate length. It meant finishing it in two sittings instead of one is all. Anyway, the story is about a painter who goes mad and eventually his wife ends up disfigured and his child neglected and... well, y'know what? I don't really want to ruin it but there's stuff about mutilation and self-destruction and abuse and all kinds of other skeletons in closets. It's definitely played with a straight face although the sort of ethereal presentation I guess helps in not making it too heavy handed.
But to me it wasn't really the story I enjoyed. Nope. It was the House! Have you ever heard of the Winchester Mystery House? That's that huge mansion in California where Winchester gun heiress Sarah Winchester just kept on building up until her death. I mean, this is maybe a campfire tale but the urban legend was that she was haunted by the ghosts of those lives taken by namesake's weapons and she continued to build to keep these ghosts happy. This resulted in all kinds of crazy constructions like doors that lead to nothing or staircases that got you nowhere.
Anyway the house in this game reminded me of that. The architecture quite literally made no sense in Layers Of Fear, to the extent that it was even impossible. Sometimes a door you walked in would lead to somewhere different if you went back through it. Sometimes a door you walked through would simply be gone if you turned back around. Some hallways would continually loop to what seemed like infinity.
The other frame of reference I was reminded of was that old GameCube game Eternal Darkness in the sense that this game is totally meant to mess with the gamer. It's as if there's only a thin line between if the game is trying to express the madness of the character or if it's trying to make the gamer go mad. And to be honest, it does totally work at times. The one moment I really remember the game getting me to jump was one where a wall spelled out, "don't turn around." I stood there for a good twenty seconds or so knowing that if I did turn around something would be there. But I couldn't stop my curiosity. When I turned around - you guessed it - something was there and it still startled me. There's other moments where you'll see the 'ghosts' of your own in-game past such as a toddler running around or flames erupting from paintings; paintings changing altogether; ceilings becoming floors as if the room is an M.C. Escher picture.
Later in the game the world gets even more surreal, such as when submerging your head in a bathtub brings upon a whole underwater scene. But it's not just things like this that are actually part of the game world. There's also the fact that the game itself seems to like to mess with you in a way that winkingly knows that it's a game. If you get a kick out of things like the fourth-wall breaking in the Metal Gear Solid games then you'll probably appreciate it when Layers Of Fear makes you think that your console has shut off for a moment and so on.
Upon finally seeing the credits I didn't feel like Layers Of Fear was some ground-breaking work. In all honesty it didn't even feel like something I'd ever play again. But at the same time I did feel like it was something that I was glad I stumbled upon. In fact my wife totally loved it, so if anything it was a great freebie to find hidden in my library as it totally served the purpose of our spooky game night. So there's that. Also I appreciate that upon completion of the game the developers left the main "un-crazy" version of the house open to walk around in. That was a nice touch.