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Layers of Fear (2023) Review

The current onslaught of video game remakes, remasters, and reboots can be justified if one wanted to give money-hungry publishers the benefit of the doubt. Who would not try to improve something that was done poorly in the past? Sure, Resident Evil 4 from 2005 is still a blast to play, but updating its graphics and gameplay in 2023 did lead to a fantastic action-horror experience. Final Fantasy VII may be a classic of the JRPG genre, but making it an action-heavy adventure with a meta-narrative is an ingenious way of bringing a staple of the medium to modern audiences. There are, however, some remakes and remasters whose existence many would be hard-pressed to justify.

The original Layers of Fear came out in 2016, one of many attempts to fill the vacant hole the cancelled Silent Hills game left in players’ hearts, yet the only truly commercially successful one. For better or worse, it is a rollercoaster haunted house ride, with carefully curated scares that are often predictable and occasionally laughable (a doll slamming its head on a wall is burnt in everyone’s memory). There is little impact left by the developer Bloober Team’s first major hit, who has since developed similar horror titles that put a heavy emphasis on linear exploration and narrative thrills instead of complex gameplay mechanics.

Now that they have been given the keys to remaking the iconic Silent Hill 2, Bloober Team decided to collaborate with Anshar Studios to remake Layers of Fear, essentially closing the seven-year psychological horror cycle that catapulted the Polish studio to worldwide fame. 2023’s Layers of Fear is simultaneously a remake, a reboot, and a sequel, or rather, instead of simply recreating the 2016 jumpscare-fest and its DLC in Unreal Engine 5, Bloober and Anshar also remade 2019’s uneven Layers of Fear 2, as well as adding an extra chapter and an epilogue.

Someone unfamiliar with the story of the first two games might get sucked into the psychological torment of a painter and an actor, who falls into a depressive spiral where their deepest fears start manifesting and haunting them. The original’s story remains easily the highlight, especially with its added epilogue that changes perspective to that of the painter’s wife, creating a tale of abuse that lacks surprises yet is still engrossing enough. The narrative of Layers of Fear 2 remains painfully dull, its ship setting and the cinematic homages lacking the compelling main character to tie everything together. The worst offender is easily the newly-added chapter of “The Writer”, which ties all of the stories together. Outside of featuring decisively weaker dialogue and narration (one of the earliest lines is a “my ass” joke), there is no intrigue or terror to be found in the claustrophobic lighthouse, with tired “tortured artist” tropes that are as original as a cat jumping out of a closet.

Well, if the stories have barely been improved, maybe the gameplay has? Wrong. Most of the player’s time will be spent running in circles, opening drawers, reading notes, and turning around, hoping for something to happen. Thankfully many of the pointless pickable items have been cut, while a new combat mechanic has been implemented. A lamp can be used to fend off ghosts for a limited time and to open new doors or locked chests. This is far less exciting than it sounds, as it adds an extra element of tedium during chases or endless loops that require the protagonist to find codes to proceed.

Layers of Fear is such a nothing experience. Those who played the first two games will get very little new content, while newcomers are likely to be put off by the repetitive gameplay loop and excessive focus on storytelling through notes. Anshar Studios may have done a good job replicating the environments in Unreal Engine 5, but the overly-realistic graphics take away some of the more stylized, expressionistic, high-contrast visuals of the previous engine. Not only that but the experience is littered with minor audio-visual bugs, from missing sound effects to texture pop-ins after sudden location changes. Interested gamers are better off picking up the original versions at a discount if they are so inclined to experience Layers of Fear at least once. Here’s hoping that Bloober Team is putting all of its efforts into making Silent Hill 2 a worthwhile remake.

Copy supplied by the publisher.

Nicolò Grasso
Nicolò Grasso
Filmmaker and cinephile, owner of the EnjoyTheMovies production company and YouTube channel. Also reviews video games for Cult Following and the EnjoyTheGaming YouTube channel.

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