In Layers of Fear, a new game by the Poland-based Bloober Team, you are an artist who has gone completely insane. As you try to paint one last masterpiece, the house around you contorts and mocks your sense of self, direction, and work, with the rising terror corresponding to the increasingly demented canvas on your easel.
Layers of Fear is billed as a “psychedelic adventure horror game,” and while its linear narrative of clicking to find objects, sudden scares, and mounds of disembodied baby doll heads has a lot in common with other horror video games (notably P.T., the “playable teaser” for a cancelled edition of Silent Hill), the art angle makes it stand out. That and the beautiful design, which is based on 19th-century architecture. As with the constantly changing haunted abode in House of Leaves, you can never be sure the door you enter from will lead you back the way you came; it might be replaced by a brick wall, or nothing at all.
Nearly every room is filled with Old Master paintings that follow you with their eyes, including Joshua Reynolds’s “Self-Portrait Shading the Eyes” (1740s), Lavinia Fontana’s “Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez” (1595), whose sitter has a hair-covered face, thanks to hypertrichosis, Rembrandt’s “The Abduction of Ganymede” (1635), and an abominal version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” (1489–90), with the subject’s face rotten and the animal turned demonic. Some of these paintings come to life in unsettling ways, like apples falling from a still life or the paint smearing off a mutilated portrait. As for your own developing painting, which has a Francis Bacon–like madness, it seems to be a portrait of a woman, although “of” may mean more than just the likeness (think anthropodermic bibliopegy, for a start). As it takes form, you discover more about your character and question whether you’ve done something awful.
The game falters a bit in its voiceovers, and the dialogue that can sometimes be cringeworthy, as when you find an engagement ring and say, “The thought alone that the most beautiful piece of art doesn’t have my name on it is killing me.” It’s begging for a Vincent Price type to at least make the camp creepy. The horror tropes, such as scrawled messages on the walls, can also get a little repetitive and ridiculous — I’m fairly certainly I saw “EVERYONE IS A CRITIC” written like a message of the damned on a wall, and by the time a baby doll turned up in a brackish bathtub bearing notice of rats clogging the drain, I felt like I had reached peak spook house. What the game excels at is creating an atmosphere of unease with rain on windows, flickering lights, and disorientation, so that even as the player you start to question your own mind. The sudden knock on a door is much scarier than the animated dead lady dancing in the hallway.
The game is currently available through Steam’s early access, which means it’s still being developed and shaped. This week a special Halloween patch was released, adding a temporary Ouija board experience for players. Just keep an eye on the paint splatters on the walls — at another glance they might turn to blood.
Layers of Fear by Bloober Team is available for Steam, Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox.