Anything can make you jump. A loud noise and a sudden movement? That’s brute force horror and takes no real skill. Easy. Try it with a friend (maybe one you don’t like that much). However, to make you doubt yourself? To be left afraid because you can’t trust your own eyes any more? That’s a masterclass in evil and Layers of Fear is that masterclass.
Effectively, Layers of Fear plays like a Gothic PT, throwing in elements of things like The Shining and The Woman in Black. It’s a psychological horror experience that messes with your head in a far more disturbing way than any monster jumping out from behind a curtain (although that is an option here). The imagery is constantly unsettling: art with misshapen faces or monstrous forms, the worst creepy dolls, and an artist’s paints apparently claiming parts of a house in fat, sludgy blobs. Sound also worms its way under your skin, as whispering voices leak from the DualShock and a tense ambience that threatens you as you explore.
There are jump scares but where it really pushes into new ground, and secures a near groundbreaking status, is the way it wilfully abuses your senses. Things shift under your eye: the door you just came through might not be there when you turn round. Or the room will have changed when you look back. Pictures twist into horrifying images just on the edges of your vision, as nightmarish shapes and forms slide over the real world while your gaze is directed elsewhere. The effect erodes your faith in just simply being able to trust the space you’re in.
It’s beautifully, artfully done too. When things change it’s often subtly prompted without realising you’ve been tricked until it’s too late. The game plays you in that respect. I’ve never felt such a sense of unease from a horror experience because I’ve never been so much a part of it. You’re not passively observing scary things: those split seconds of uncertainty as you register changes unbalance you, letting the horror slip past your normal defenses almost subliminally.
Paintings play an integral part in the game. They’re both the cause, and expression, of the artist’s growing madness. Even the ‘normal’ ones aren’t encouraging, consisting of dour portraits and grim faces staring at you. Then there are the more threatening options: monsters and freaks, blood smeared shapes and warped images that defy a clear reading. Nearly all of them are real paintings too, pulled from actual Renaissance art.