There’s a gag in comedy show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in which the fictional author encourages you to buy a complete edition of all of his novels – the joke being the book is so large you need a ladder to turn the pages. The tagline is if you only buy one of my books, then buy this one because it is all of them. I’m not saying that Bloober Team get their ideas from niche early 2000s Channel 4 telly, but Layers of Fear is a remastered collection of the two main previous games and their assorted DLC content sharing, while confusingly sharing the same name as the original game in isolation. What we actually have are not just ports to newer consoles, though, as the new versions have been refined and streamlined to offer up the definitive experience of each and are wrapped up in a new framing narrative.
The main themes of Layers of Fear are concerned with the trope of the suffering artist. In the first game this a tormented painter, whilst the DLC offer alternative perspectives via his musician wife and daughter. Layers of Fear 2 shifts the focus to acting and the framing narrative introduces a horror writer who seems uncannily connected to the original stories. This narrative cohesion does make the new format for the games an effective one, especially since they were both relatively short experiences. The end result is a title that feels surprisingly like a complete game rather than a collection of previously separate ones.
With Bloober Team hard at work on their Silent Hill 2 remake, they’ve collaborated with Anshar Studios to give these games a fresh lick of Unreal Engine 5 paint. The increased fidelity is welcome, but the real star of the show is the use of lighting and raytracing. I played on PS5 and went back to compare this version with the original on PC and the differences are clear. That being said, the main standout is Layers of Fear 2 (the actor’s story here) where the visual design actually makes frequent reference to the history of cinema and employs various tricks such as black and white sections or film grain. The originals mostly remained on the dark side of the spectrum with occasional vivid splashes of colour for effect.
Without divulging too much of the narrative it is worth pointing out that this is very much a psychological horror and, as such, contains some potentially distressing content, particularly in regards to mental illness and self harm. Most of the detail in the storytelling requires you to explore the environment for notes and documents, but the general narrative is much more effective here than in the original. Notes are voice acted and performances are largely decent, whilst music is effectively employed to develop atmosphere. The sound design is superb though, and I would definitely recommend playing with headphones to take advantage of the binaural mix.
As well as visual enhancements, the game’s have been updated and streamlined. The painter’s tale is the most noticeably altered (and also the one that I was most familiar with) with some more obscure environmental puzzles removed and others tidied up to improve the flow. There is still a feel of moving between rooms to trigger set pieces, which often involve you turning around several times but it certainly feels more involved than it did previously.
One major addition is perhaps controversial, though, as the flashlight mechanic from the later titles is retroactively added. Rather than a torch, you find a more fitting lantern but the result is much the same. Some items are blocked by a barrier of red light which can only be removed by the lantern and a recurring enemy will stalk you that can only be briefly incapacitated by the light. There is a cooldown bar for the lantern, but no fuel or battery mechanic so it mostly feels like busywork rather than strategy.
The addition of chase scenes is clearly a deliberate decision to ensure greater cohesion between the two games and they do work well enough but they feel far less thematically consistent than in the actor’s story. The combination of disorientating mazes and a pursing threat is scary but it’s a different kind of fear than the dread that most of the game relies upon. These chases can result in frustrating deaths, but autosaves are thankfully quite frequent and there is an option to turn deaths off altogether if that kind of reaction gameplay isn’t for you.