Bloober Team’s physiological horror sequel Layers of Fear 2 brings portable scares to the Nintendo Switch. The Finger Guns Review.
For the best part of a decade, Bloober Team have been carving a little niche for themselves in the gaming industry. They’ve specialised in physiological horror games with high production values like Blair Witch, Observer and The Medium. Probably their most well-known franchises is the Layers of Fear games, the second of which is the focus of this review. Originally released back in 2019, Layers of Fear 2 is now creeping onto Nintendo Switch. Do the chills carry over in a portable form? Or is this one nautical nail biter we should let drift away? Let’s get into it.
Swapping the haunted house of the original game for a creaking cruise liner, Layers of Fear 2 puts the player in the shoes of a Hollywood actor. Employed by an inscrutable movie director with a bad reputation, the actor is aboard this ship in order to star in a mysterious new movie. It doesn’t take long to discover that something isn’t quite right on set though. What follows is a jump scare filled jaunt through the bowels of the boat as well as a sinister trip down memory lane for the protagonist.
Much like the original game, Layers of Fear 2 has a strong narrative. Separated into 5 acts, the plot to the game has – coincidentally – quite a number of layers. At first, you’re lead to believe that the enigmatic director likes to put their performers through emotional trauma in order to “get the best out of them”. This director acts as a kind of narrator to the game, whispering gruff nothings in your ear as the actor experiences all kids of weird and unnerving things. By the second act, that focus has changed. A formless horror stalks the actor through the ship. By the time the third act arrives, in which the scares take a back seat so the game can deliver some of the more nuanced narrative beats, you can’t really be sure of anything. Is this all part of the film production? Is the actor imagining this? Are the details I’m uncovering true or a story within a story? You’ll get answers but you’ll likely have more questions before the game ends too.
If you wanted to look deeper at the plot here, you could do. Layers of Fear 2 is one of those rare games when its story can work equally as well when taken literally or figuratively. At face value, it’s an actor with a traumatic past that’s using it as motivation to give the performance of a lifetime while also maybe losing their marbles a tad because of a difficult director. Underneath this though, there’s a symbolic plot exploring internal conflict, transsexualism and accepting one’s inner identity. There are moments when the plot here can be very unclear but thankfully, by the end of its 7 hour run time, there’s a satisfactory conclusion no matter which of the 3 endings you receive.
While ships aren’t exactly the most original location for a horror game, the cruise liner in Layers of Fear 2 is a little different from your usual fare. The game is early in the 20th century so the ship has a Titanic vibe. Claustrophobic corridors with art deco furnishings make way for the industrial bowels of the ship. Passenger rooms, cargo holds and kitchens in different states of repair make for an immersive environment to skulk around in. What’s more, because parts of the ship are cordoned off for the film crew, there’s movie sets to explore too. You can be opening up a watertight door right on to a street scene packed with animatronic characters. By the end of the movie, you can’t be quite sure where you are or even if it’s real and it works well to disorientate the player.
Layers of Fear 2 achieves this confusion by shifting and changing the environment as you move through it. At times you’ll be exiting a room only to walk right back into the very same room you just left. Walk to the end of a long corridor lined with locked doors and when you turn around, you can find yourself in a totally different room instantly. At times, you’ll step through a door and find yourself walking on the wall or ceiling. The third chapter of the game loops on itself but changes small aspects each time. It’s a smart way to keep the player wrongfooted and wary.
Building up suspense and caution with the player is one aspect that Layers of Fear 2 does incredibly well. This is a title built by people who know that the anticipation of a scare is just as important as the scare itself. Doors that open slightly as you approach them but slam shut as you get close. Figures casting ominous shadows from around corners. Animatronic mannequins that creak to life as you walk past them. It’s a game that manages to create a measure of low level tension for its entire duration by taking every opportunity to do something unsettling, if not necessarily scary.
Like any good horror game, the audio is one of the most important aspects of Layers of Fear 2. By using binaural sound effects, the game can transform mundane occurrences into another thing to be scared off. A sudden blast of sound accompany suddenly moving objects to give them the maximum impact. Rising strings give sections of exploration a tense feel as it feeds into a constant feeling of anticipation. A croaking groan accompanies every encounter with the formless being that’s unnerving, especially when it’s chasing you.
The most challenging moments of Layers of Fear 2 are when you’re being asked to avoid streams of light or fire. Here you’ve got to watch for a pattern and avoid stepping into the hazards. This adds a little bit of excitement into walking from A to B to C which would be boring otherwise, but because of the generosity of the checkpoint systems it’s not exactly taxing either. Fail and you won’t have much ground to re-tread.
The formless stalker is the primary danger throughout the game. It’ll burst through doors, appear in place of the animatronic figures or simply walk into view. There’s no way to fight back against it so instead, you’re simply got to run away. These encounters are a mix between tense, nail-biting escapes and more formulaic almost bland face-to-faces. At times, you can tell by the way things are laid out that you’ll soon be bumping into the beast. It takes a bit of the shock out of it when you’re already looking for the way out before the danger approaches. If you’re averse to being chased in video games, there’s a safe mode for the game which tones down the chases. It won’t get rid of the jump scares though.
Jump scares are a big component in Layers of Fear 2. I’m not usually a fan of them but many are really well done here. They’re not just things happening suddenly to make you jump. There’s been some real thought put into doing them with purpose. For example, the structure and lighting of some rooms can draw your eye to a particular spot only for something else in the periphery to move or change quickly. It’s not your standard jump scares, that’s for sure. Many are smartly done.
The same can’t be said for the puzzles. There’s a few option environmental puzzles in the game which are interesting, like asking you to look around a room to find something which could represent a 3 digit lock code. The mandatory puzzles are mediocre however. There’s one involving a clock which looks impressive but is actually just a math equation. Before this is a disk puzzle, asking the player to spin concentric circles to form an image. It’s nothing you’ve not seen a thousand times before. There’s even one puzzle in the game involving a plant’s shadow that I’m not entirely sure how I solved. There was no real guidance so I just kept messing with everything in the room until I could move on.
If there’s one aspect of Layers of Fear 2 that I think should be highly commended, it’s that the game manages to create quite a tense and scary atmosphere without having to resort to gore. Sure, there’s a few moments that are a bit grisly – there’s a few dead yet twitching mice and one human head in a box – but the rest of the game is free of bloodshed. Instead, it lets the imagination do the hard work. You’ll see humanoid figures hanging from a chain but when you get close, you’ll see it’s a mannequin. In another section that’s almost entirely white, there’s a path of red winding through it. In any other game, you’d be thinking “that’s a whole lot of blood”. Here, it’s fruit juice. It was quite refreshing to play a horror game that didn’t coat everything in cruor.
Visually, Layers of Fear 2 has obviously had to have a bit of a downgrade in order to be made portable. The game is still quite pretty but you can certainly see where concessions have had to be made in order to get it running on the Nintendo Switch. Generally, the focus has been applied in the right places (i.e. the golden path you’ll follow getting through the game) but get off that beaten track and there’s some rough edges. Some textures look rough, the water effects are a lot less convincing than in the other console versions and there’s a general flatness to the lighting.
There’s a few technical issues too. The frame rate can get a little choppy when running through corridors and turning at the same time. This is noticeable in handheld mode but it’s far from a deal breaker. On two occasions, my screen went completely black and I found myself having to quit to the menu to re-load the last check point. On reflection and having played the section again without it failing, both of these occasions happened when I was stepping back into a corridor that would be transformed into something else when I tried to exit the room.
The Switch version is undoubtedly the worst way to play Layers of Fear 2 – but it’s still worth a look for horror fans who only have the Nintendo hybrid console available to them. The game itself carries an engrossing narrative set in a game world that’s constantly trying to surprise the player through a 5-7 hour adventure. While the puzzles are middling and the visuals less impressive than the other versions of this game, there’s plenty of scares and a thick atmosphere without a massive amount of gore.
Layers of Fear 2 is available now on Nintendo Switch (review version), PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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