Layers of Fear 2 - Horrifyingly Beautiful
By Javier Foshee
The beauty of psychological horror is the mind’s twilight state of reason towards the unknown, trying to attach a sense of resemblance to the figures and fantasies it registers. When it can’t, and reality is no longer grounded, the dissonance of uncertainty becomes doom, rooting you to panic or perseverance. There is irony and wonder when the familiar is no longer what we know, taking a new form before our eyes; a metamorphosis of our reality, and the self-directed expectation to adapt and adjust. In that moment, we see a glimpse of our truest actions- our truest selves.
That statement, potentially cliche, is what I thought playing Layers of Fear 2, the sequel to psychological horror Layers of Fear, developed by Bloober Team. I never played the first one so I didn’t know what to expect, but I heard only praise from peers of the first one. To me, the title sounded simple and, honestly, a little boring. After playing, I saw it, impressed, as a modest summary to the exposition entailed.
In Layers of Fear 2, you’re a silent, unknown actor on a cruise ship during what seems like the 20’s-40’s, given the extravagant cruise ship and overall technology like phonograms, film reels, telescopes, and projecting movie cameras. Left with nothing but directions given on chalkboards, film reels, cards, and the inviting voices inside your head, you traverse the ship through five Acts, solving puzzles and making choices to determine the identity of our silent hero.
From start to finish, I was engrossed in an obscure wonderland of uncertainty and hesitance around every corner and door, opened and/or closed. I could open a door, close it, walk 3 steps forward, turn around, and the door is gone as well as the wall. Infact, an entirely new area would appear, leaving me disoriented, especially when translucent figures chase you around the ship. There are few worse things than seeing an unidentifiable entity strolling towards you and turning around to see that the way you came is no longer an option.
The entity, named the Formless, is the main antagonist and motif of the game, representing this beast in the darkness, trying to take your body as a vessel. If you look at it, you see a distorted outline twitching and glitching towards you, which is more than enough for me to run. It’s a simple concept, and it scares the hell out of me. The music for it is a loud boom followed by compressed guttural sirens of rising tension like you’re holding your breath with an adrenaline high. If it catches you, you’re a victim to its unsightly gaze and erratic dash towards the screen until the continue screen appears. The first few times it was frightening but after frequently dying (something I am very good at), it didn’t faze me as much.
However, I believe the idea of being Formless also represents you, the actor. Your identity and memories are unknown, slowly being recollected through Acts and the choices you make in them, ultimately determining which ending you’ll get. The significance of decisions are given by voices talking to you, one being the director, the narrator (voiced by Tony Todd, aka Candyman), and one later in the game being a woman’s voice arguing with you and the director. You choose to obey or defy the director, depending on which choice you make. The voices question your identity, competence, and resolve, tugging between the director’s expectancy to compliance or your fight for free will. The theme of self-identity is always fascinating to me because it seems to be a topic that people sometimes have a hard time confronting, especially when the perceptions of others can be considered more important than our own perceptions. It questions if our defined ‘self’ is of our own volition or at the mercy of others.
Horror has always had a unique plane for music and sound design, and the game developed a beautifully chilling atmosphere for it by knowing when and where to apply it. The game recommends you use headphones to play since it has binaural audio, meaning audio can and will appear in one ear or the other, dependent on the character’s placement and direction in an area. There are radios, fans, and tvs everywhere on the boat, all on somehow, usually making noise in one of my ears on the other side of the room while silence is in the other. Whenever I saw any, I’d immediately turn them off. It made me more anxious to hear noise than silence. Audio cues are helpful and deceptive. Faint whispers are heard throughout the game, initially creeping me out until I noticed they talk when an interactive item is present, getting louder when closer to the item. Throughout the game, vases cracking would play tricks with you, sometimes signaling an even, and other times nothing at all. More often, without audio indication, human forms appear behind and around you, creating a more unique sense of fright. Some may find that lackluster, but I’ve always been fond of that device. I think jump scares are mainly effective because loud noises are affiliated with the visual cue, startling two senses. When you take the aural influence away, it becomes a more unique type of scare because there’s no other way to notice the scare. You have to experience it, if you want to proceed.
After the first playthrough, New Game+ opens, letting you go to any act and change the choices made, making other endings accessible. Although there are only five acts, you’ll realize the first four have choices that the fifth will culminate together to determine your ending. Going through the acts, which used to take an hour or two per act, now take roughly 30-45 minutes when you notice how streamline and linear the game is. Every puzzle, initially competent brain teasers, become rudimentary, ultimately bleak compared to your first playthrough. The only new experiences I had were two of the endings so far, but I intend to keep playing and explore more of the ship whenever it’ll let me.The game is filled with references and homages to classic film and cult classics. I won’t go into detail, but if you like the old thrillers The Shining, Se7en, or fantasy like The Wizard of Oz, you’ll be pleased with the respect given to them. The collectible movie posters throughout the game are also very interesting, all indirectly referencing popular film.
Ultimately, despite the linear gameplay and simple mechanics, I recommend playing this game solely for the experience it brings. I may not be as versed in the video game medium for psychological horrors, but this refreshing, uncomfortable adventure is one I think anyone that’s a fan of the genre should experience.