Peel back the layers and there’s a clear connective tissue tying Layers of Fear 2 and its predecessor together. Both games are centered around an artist gradually losing their grip on reality. While the original game focused on a struggling painter in an opulent Victorian mansion, Layers of Fear 2 shifts art forms to tell the story of a Hollywood actor during the Golden Age of cinema, as he embarks on a new role in a movie being shot aboard a decadent ocean liner. Developer Bloober Team has created something more varied and ambitious than its past work, taking inspiration from iconic film directors like Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock. And while it is a visually striking horror game, Layers of Fear 2 struggles to establish its own identity and explore its themes of anguish and despair in meaningful ways.
The story itself is like a jigsaw puzzle; some of the pieces come together as the narrative unfolds, but others are scattered across the environment as notes, optional puzzles, sound recordings, and paraphernalia that provide new details on your character’s troubled past. You might not be able to put the whole picture together before the game’s conclusion, but it’s a familiar and clichéd tale that isn’t too difficult to discern once events begin to wrap up. Childhood trauma is the key motif, built around the relationship you had with your sister, but Layers of Fear 2 regularly uses routine horror tropes as opposed to something more personal. This decision doesn’t coalesce with the story to provide a sense that your character’s state of mind and past anguish are shaping what’s happening. During the first act you catch spectral forms out of the corner of your eye, and this eventually evolves into frequent appearances from crudely assembled mannequins and a formless monster that stalks you through much of the game. These creatures are unnerving, but they’re not really specific to the game or this character, failing to capitalize on the strengths of psychological horror and the inherent importance of a character’s fears and trepidations in manifesting intimate threats.
Similarly, much of Layers of Fear 2’s art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn’t always come together in a consistent way. Saying it takes place aboard a ship is a tad disingenuous, as the setting is constantly shifting and transporting you to a variety of disparate environments. Overt homages to films such as The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon, and Nosferatu are littered throughout the game. Some of them are deftly woven into the narrative and the game’s own art style, but others lack context and fail to rise above being mere visual spectacles, foregoing any semblance of cohesion with the rest of the game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have an appreciation for this era of cinema, but it also makes Layers of Fear 2 feel like an inconsequential mishmash of film references without any clear significance to the story it’s trying to tell.
Much of Layers of Fear 2’s art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn’t always come together in a consistent way
Your interactions with the world are very tangible, which helps ground you in the game’s setting even when the threads of reality are stretched thinner and thinner. The majority of your time is spent simply exploring each space, gathering knick-knacks to fill in the story, and solving puzzles to progress. The conundrums it places before you are never particularly challenging or memorable, whether it’s using a dial with 10 numbers to multiply up to a specific digit or manipulating a roll of film to create a doorway. Some of them are in keeping with the tone of the game and its cinematic feel, but others are so inane they just feel out of place.
What Layers of Fear 2 does do well is build atmosphere and an ever-escalating sense of dread. The score is ominous, utilizing string instruments to send a chill down your spine. But there are also plenty of opportunities for the sound design to breathe on its own, too. The creaking of wooden floorboards, rats scurrying past your feet, and the plip-plop of dripping water create tension despite their mundanity. It also makes you hesitant to simply turn around, as the environment toys with impossible spaces, distorting the world around you when you’re not looking. When you walk into a room and find a locked door with nowhere else to go but back the way you came, the suspense hits, tapping into that fear of the unknown–of what’s waiting to greet you once you turn your head.
Unfortunately, these anxiety-inducing feelings diminish as the game progresses and it leans too heavily on tried and tested tactics. The aforementioned mannequins are consistently impressive due to their creepy stop-motion-esque movement, but they’re featured so heavily that their effect as something to be scared of is severely diminished. This is a problem with Layers of Fear 2 as a whole; the protracted playtime of around 10 hours struggles to maintain its early momentum through the last couple of chapters. The formless creature that oftentimes stalks you adds some urgency to what is otherwise a methodical affair, but the most terrifying thing about the chase sequences is the threat of having to redo them if you fail. Sometimes the monster’s arrival comes so suddenly that you’re dead before even realizing what’s happened, and these cheap insta-kills mean you’re frustratingly subjected to the same death animation over and over again.
There are remnants of an excellent horror game submerged just below the surface of Layers of Fear 2. Horror icon Tony Todd–of Candyman fame–lends his bassy growl to the disembodied and omnipresent voice of the film’s eccentric director. Each word he bellows is a sonorous treat, no matter how terrifying his performance is. The art design, too, while disjointed, conjures some breathtaking imagery that you can’t help but marvel at. It’s just a shame that Layers of Fear 2 frequently pays lip service to the films and games that clearly inspired it while struggling to find a voice of its own. The story is too hazy to latch onto until the latter stages, and then nothing about it is particularly engaging, with its central mystery building towards something we’ve seen numerous times before. It occasionally hints at interesting themes but fails to go anywhere with them, falling back on telegraphed jump scares rather than delving deeper into the psychological horror it can only tease at. For every piece of good work there’s an analogous aspect that lacks focus and direction. Layers of Fear 2 feels lost at sea.