Haven Review: Layers of Fear

Layers of Fear UpdateThe following article was written and published on August 31, 2015. Major updates were released for this game on September 4, 2015. Points below marked with an asterisk (*) indicate issues that have been resolved, or features that have been added to enhance or correct early problems.

Q:
What do Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” and the pilot episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery have in common?

A: Paintings that change ever so slightly each time you look a them!


Video games based on haunted houses are not new, and there have indeed been some epic releases. Among the very best are Alone in the Dark (Infogrames, 1992), The 7th Guest (Trilobyte, 1993), and its sequel, The 11th Hour (Trilobyte, 1995). Perhaps the most ubiquitous, and top ranked of all time is the incomparable Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010). I’ll take that scene…you know which one…to my grave.

So who dares challenge these legends? Say hello to Layers of Fear (Bloober Team, 2015). After a tense “P.T.” (playable teaser) phase, Layers of Fear (LoF) has finally emerged from the shadows and into the warm light of “early access”.

LadyAndWeaselAnimatedLike its predecessors, LoF offers a rich back story as the protagonist enters a seemingly normal 19th century style abode. As you walk from room to room, take your time and examine everything; detail is key. While the atmosphere is creepy and moody, at times it’s downright frightening. In the picture at left, for instance, we see a lovely young woman with her pet ermine. What could possibly go wrong? Da Vinci would be turning in his grave if he knew.

Some of the best moments in survival/horror gaming happen when the player is not quite sure if they saw something. The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour were brilliant pioneers of this sensation, and many titles afterward did their best to copy it. One such product was Scratches (Nucleosys, 2006), an eerie still-frame progression around a very strange manor. Unfortunately, the game’s ambiance was somewhat marred by fixed camera angles and lackluster transitions. The developers were quick to respond, however with a “Director’s Cut” the following year, which added just enough content to warrant a top shelf placement in my collection. The game even features a horrifying painting that has since become world famous on eBay…care to guess? It’s not hard to find as you play…and it will bring back memories!

GameCollectionConsidering that horror games are particularly susceptible to spoilers, what observations can we safely make about LoF? The game plays (and preys) upon multiple senses at once. Psychology teaches that when we’re watching scary fiction, there’s a part of our brain that perceives it as “not fake”. This is why we succumb, and why we return for more! LoF delivers this via three distinct elements: paintings, rooms and sounds. Some effects are obvious; you leave a room by the same door you entered, but wind up somewhere else. You hear a soft whisper when you turn to the left, but not when you turn right. A painting on the wall has more content now than when you first encountered it. For me these are fun, but not particularly scary. On the other hand, if I have to ask myself: “That dog in the painting…is…it…sssmiiling at me?!” You get the picture (pun intended).Room2aIf you happened to catch my YouTube play through of Alien Isolation, one of the things I promised myself was to refrain from screaming out loud. I failed…not often, but failed I did. When I play through LoF very soon now, I make no such deals! You can visit the heroesofgamershaven channel to watch…and remember to comment, like and subscribe!

layers_of_fear_2This brings us to our final point. Is Layers of Fear worth it? The answer for me is “not yet”. Here are a some reasons:

1. No mouse/keyboard options: I tend to invert the mouse in my games.  Can’t do it here. I tend to use the arrow keys for movement. Here you’re stuck with A,S,D,W.
*FIXED: Both X and Y axes can now be inverted; movement keys can now be remapped. Other keys, such as Sprint and Camera Zoom can now also be remapped, which partially fixes point number 5, below.

2. PC optimization is not complete: Even with my GTX 980 Ti (6GB), every fan in my system sounds like it’s on overdrive. For now, play on “Low” graphics quality.
*FIXED: No more excessive fan noise, even on “High” graphics quality.

3. No way to manually save the game: There are currently checkpoints from which you can continue a prior session, but only the most recent checkpoint is available. If you want to return to an earlier spot, you’ll have to start a new game from scratch.
4. Game is short: This early access product can be completed in about two hours. The full release promises to be much longer. Experience the current “playable spoiler” at your discretion!
5. No FAQ sheet: There are no instructions to tell you which keys do what, so the game’s mechanics are just as mysterious as the story. Is this intentional, or just a Bloober-blooper?

Well there you have it. My overall prospects for this game are good, and with a price tag of $10 (U.S.) it’s a great deal. But if you’re the type of player who likes to lose yourself in total immersion right away, I’d recommend holding off a little longer.
*No longer necessary to hold off. This early access product is now playable, and I fully agree with Steam’s rating of “Overwhelmingly Positive”.

-Chris Roberts-