The atmosphere sticks like a sweet, damp odour. As the door swings shut behind you – instantly snuffing out the meagre light – something shifts in the darkness. You’re just hearing things, you admonish yourself – it’s only the drip of a pipe or the creak of a floorboard; you’re on edge and have been for ages – but then it happens again and this time, there’s no mistake. The silence is a knowing silence, now; a watchful one. Something knows you’re there, and it’s waiting for you to move first.
Layers of Fear 2 is never better than when it ramps up this cloying, almost paralysing atmosphere, leading you through claustrophobic corridors and dank, damp interiors where once fine furnishings lie in sodden, mouldering heaps. While first-class tables have been set for dinner, decanters left to breathe and napkins fanned in anticipation, the dining hall is empty – everywhere across the Icarus Transatlantic is empty. The further you explore, the more you’ll notice its once majestic suites are now crumbling and decaying, leaving you with just scraps of notes and musty memories to piece together the unsettling puzzle of double-u-tee-eff happened here.
These opening hours are my favourite. The disquieting – and deliberate – similarities to Titanic are strongest there, and the low-key sleight-of-hand horror at its most effective. Later, when the game pulls you elsewhere and even the jumpiest of players – a group in which I include myself – will become oh-so-acclimatised to the scripted scares, you’ll feel the weight of repetition and the poor pacing pull fretfully at the edges of your enjoyment. Here, though, in the beginning, your desire to know more will trump your hesitation, tempting you onwards through the reinforced steel archways. You jump as the room trills with the metallic thump of the door swinging shut behind you, panicking as you realise the room has quietly shifted when you looked away, doors dissolving into thin air, trapping you in a dark, tight space with no obvious means of escape. Layers of Fears 2 hasn’t taught you to be cynical just yet.
Developer Bloober Team has taken the spectacular spooks from its original haunted house tale and reframed them in this mysterious ocean liner. Here you play a Hollywood actor who’s following a curious casting call – but you’re nameless and voiceless in that special way that makes it nigh on impossible for the player to forge any meaningful connection. With no internal monologue or external exclamations, it’s impossible to ascertain what they’re feeling, which irrevocably damages Layers of Fear 2’s intensely emotional story; if my character doesn’t care about this deeply personal story, why should I?
The problem is Layers of Fear 2 recycles many of the same devices of its predecessor, but the extended playtime – double the four/five hours of the original title – is too long. Its initial unpredictability becomes the antonym of what it sets out to achieve, and an over-reliance on horror tropes and jump-scares pokes holes in the tension crafted by the game’s superb environmental storytelling. You’ll learn to read the jump scares before they arrive – oh look, there’s a spooky mannequin, I bet it’ll move just as the light splutters out – and while there’s no denying Layers of Fear 2’s capacity to pull them off from time to time, the cheap instakills, unbalanced pacing, and unnecessarily long run-time whittle away all the good points.
The frequent film motifs are overused and ineffective. The shifts from full-colour to black-and-white start off impressive, but – like so many aspects of this game – it loses its potency each time it’s used. And while their solutions are rarely “difficult”, most of Layers of Fear 2’s puzzles lack effective signposting, so even a veteran puzzler may struggle to decipher them.
Tripping over itself to share horror pastiche and homages – Psycho, The Shining, Se7en, The Ring, even Amityville’s infamous flies – Layers of Fear 2 struggles to establish its own identity, and while Bloober Team cites exploration as one of the game’s key pillars, in truth Layers of Fear 2 intentionally hinders your exploration whenever it can, silently locking doors and dissolving exits to prevent you from backtracking. This is likely deliberate – it keeps you moving forward, firmly rooted in the story – but it also prevents you from popping back to visit a corridor you didn’t explore or scour for a missing collectable.
The grossest crime, however, is the routine – and routinely unfair – instakills. In response to complaints that its predecessor was little more than a haunted house simulator, Layers of Fear 2 has swung too far the other way with an array of cheap scripted deaths – some utterly unavoidable – extinguishing the immersion to the point of irritation. Your protagonist’s baffling lack of urgency coupled with a clumsy control scheme will see you die unnecessarily and repeatedly in maddening chase sequences, succumbing not because you didn’t know the way out of the maze, but because your controller wouldn’t let you toggle the interaction button quickly enough to slam the door shut. It’s unforgivable, really, given it’s the only mechanic in the entire game.
I’m reliably informed that there are multiple endings, but despite two full playthroughs, I secured the same one twice, a bizarre, nonsensical conclusion – presumably the “bad” ending – that didn’t exemplify the story in any way, nor helped me understand what had happened to the protag or why. It was utterly illogical in all the wrong ways and perfectly capped off a frustrating experience.
Sometimes, though? Sometimes when you can only spot an exit from a certain angle in the room, or when you enter an empty elevator and turn around to find it’s no longer empty, Layers of Fears 2 can be breathtaking for all the right reasons. Stuffed with dozens of screenshot-able moments and highly memorable sequences, this could’ve been one of the best horror games in years. Sadly, Layers of Fears 2 is too bloated, too repetitive, and too uncertain of itself to stand confidently on its own merits.