Layers of Fear (2023) Review

Back in 2016, Bloober Team introduced us to a painter who’d lost his mind, and allowed us to experience life from his tormented point-of-view. They called it Layers of Fear, and it was a solid psychological horror experience which was notable for its disturbing visuals, nightmarish gameplay and memorable story of an artist gone mad. Then, about three years later, they followed it up with a sequel about another struggling artist. This time around, though, it was an actor on a strange cruise ship who was tasked with dealing with a demanding director, some sneak-about kids and lots of creepy mannequins. Both games seemed to release to decent fanfare but weren’t exactly the talk of the industry, which is why it surprised me to hear that the developer decided to go back and update both, with plans to release them as a remade project titled Layers of Fear (2023).

Fast forward to today, and Layers of Fear (2023) is available for public consumption; at least by those who dare. The question is whether it’s worth your time and money, and if it’s different enough to warrant a second go through. I’ll do my best to answer that through this review.

One of the draws of this new version is that both Layers of Fear and Layers of Fear 2 are included in the one package. As such, you get the whole story and full experience. This is added to by three additional stories, one of which was previously released as DLC. Altogether, this adds up to a pretty decent amount of content, which will take you at least ten, if not twelve or so hours to play through. It also helps flesh out the game and its storyline. Well, the first one, because the second game hasn’t received any additional DLC or been expanded upon in this way.

The biggest change comes in the form of the Writer’s story, which joins the Painter’s story and the Actor’s story, which are terms used to delineate the first two games’ campaigns. We’re introduced to this lady, and are told that she’s won a contest that allows her to take up residence inside a famed lighthouse, where she’ll reside until she finishes her book about the Painter. Equipped with a typewriter and little else, she sets up shop in this creepy old building and sets to work on her passion project, but it isn’t long before things get weird.

It’s the Painter’s story which follows, although — like the Actor’s later on — it’s broken up into chapters that are sometimes followed by trips back to the spooky lighthouse. Each one is made up of several chapters, and they’ve all been reworked to create this new structure, allowing for the Writer to play a pivotal role that never existed back in 2016 or 2019. Her narrative continues past the end of the Painter’s deranged tale, and is one of the last things you’ll experience before the credits roll.

When you explore the lighthouse, you’ll find that there are a couple of booklets sitting on a bureau not far from the Writer’s workstation. These give you access to Inheritance, which was previously released as DLC for the original Layers of Fear, and a new tale: the Artist’s story. These bite-sized add-ons help flesh out the game’s story, by allowing you to play as both the Painter’s daughter, who returns home to what’s left of her childhood residence as an adult, and his troubled wife, who deals with depression following a terrible incident. Thus, it’s important to go in knowing that there are a lot of mature themes being dealt with here, including some triggering content.

At its core, the original Layers of Fear has always been a disturbing psychological horror experience with walking simulation mechanics. It’s the same thing here, with this updated version of that campaign. You’ll mostly walk around his old house as things change around you in disturbing ways. There are some light puzzles to be found, but a lot of it involves just experiencing the house as it changes and picking up notes and articles which help flesh out the story. The protagonist has long gone mad, and it’s evident through what he sees inside his home. Walls pulse, change, break apart and decay. Rooms do the same. Meanwhile, a monstrous version of his wife stalks him.

Layers of Fear 2 expanded upon this by introducing more puzzle elements, including a flashlight that can make mannequins move. As an actor in a strange production, you’re tasked with using the flashlight to manipulate environments, all while dealing with the creepy happenings around you. You won’t always play as this adult character, but I won’t say much more due to spoilers.

The setting — which takes the form on an old time cruise ship like the Titanic — is both stark and empty, leaving you feeling alone, claustrophobic and afraid. You never know what’s around the next corner, and are regularly stalked by both a monster and a deadly beam of light. It’s a mindf**k to say the least, much like the original.

However, despite the fact that the sequel expands upon elements of the original and is both more linear and coherent, I’ve never enjoyed it as much as the first game. This continued during my playthrough of Layers of Fear (2023), as I’m of the opinion that the first half of the game is better than the last half. In reading other reviews I seem to feel different from others, but that’s okay. I’ve always enjoyed the surreal nature of the Painter’s story, as well as exploring his ever changing and decaying home, more than the cruise ship itself. That said, I’ve always liked both titles, and reviewed each one positively in the past.

The Painter’s story just feels like more of a scary amusement park ride where you truly never know what’s going to be around the next corner. It’s creepy, it’s disturbing and I applaud it for that. In fact, thanks to the horsepower under the hoods of both the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5, the house has never looked better, nor has everything that awaits you inside its doors. That is obviously also true of the ship, but it’s a lot more repetitive looking given its many white corridors, black and white segments and regular lack of true colour. When red and green are introduced later on, though, they really pop.

Of course, it’s been a number of years since I played through each of these games on Xbox One. I won’t profess to have a great memory, nor will I say that I’m any sort of Layers of Fear expert. What I will say is that it seemed like more changes were made to the original than its sequel, which seemed to play out very similarly to before. The Painter’s story felt a lot more fresh and different than what I played before, and the changes that were made improved it.

As mentioned above, both games look really good on current-gen hardware, due to much improved visuals that are attributed to Unreal Engine 5. A lot of effort was obviously put into updating and polishing things, and playing through these games again on a massive 4K TV was a real treat. They looked fantastic, and sounded really good. I wish I had some headphones to take advantage of the binaural sound design that is mentioned in the menus, but my TV speakers did a really good job nonetheless.

Although — with all that having been said — I’m still somewhat surprised that Bloober Team chose to remake Layers of Fear and Layers of Fear 2 so soon, I’m honestly kind of glad that they did. I’d never planned to play through them a second time, but now that I have I’m happy I did. It was nice to return to the incredibly creepy Painter’s Story, and I found that I enjoyed the Actor’s story more this time than expected. That said, I wouldn’t say enough has changed to justify rushing out and buying this game if you have already played through the original versions. That is, unless you really liked them and want to experience both with a beautiful (well, beautifully grotesque) coat of fresh paint. The Writer’s story does add to things, as do the other two bite-sized campaigns, but if you’ve played through them at least once you kind of know what to expect.

That said, it’s hard not to recommend this remake for its sound and visual upgrades alone. They’re quite impressive.

This review is based on the Xbox Series X version of the game, which we were provided with.

Layers of Fear (2023) Review
Reader Rating0 Votes
The Good Stuff
A thoroughly impressive visual and audio overhaul
Strong visual horror, with psychological elements
Adds new content by way of two brand new stories
Fleshes out the previous two games, while it combines them into one package
About 10-12 hours of gameplay
The Not-So-Good Stuff
The second game remains weaker than the first
It is a walking sim with light puzzle mechanics, meaning there's not much deep gameplay
The achievement and trophy you're supposed to get for completing the Inheritance DLC is bugged, so if you care about that wait
The second game doesn't seem to have been altered or improved upon as much as the first