Layers Of Fear — recently quietly renamed from its working title Layers Of Fears — is a game that requires a bit of explanation. It shares its title with the 2016 game of the same name, and is being overseen by original developers Bloober Team. But it’s neither a remake nor a reboot; although, in some ways, it’s both of those things. It’s more a “reimagining” of the whole Layers Of Fear series to date, as well as its apparent swansong. It incorporates ground-up remakes of the two-and-a-half existing games in the series in Unreal Engine 5, alongside a new gaiden chapter complementing the first game, and a brand-new framing narrative tying the whole lot together.
I recently sat in on an early preview presentation of Layers Of Fear, chatting with creative director Damian Kocurek. Listeners to one very specific episode of the EWS podcast might recall that I’m something of a Layers Of Fear lore theorist, so of course I was delighted to nerd out over what this new(ish) game is all about. Similarly detail-oriented horror fans out there will hopefully share my excitement when I tell them that yes, the rats are back, and you can even catch a brief glimpse of the Rat Queen.
Much of the preview was taken up with Kocurek showing footage from the return to the original game. I was taken aback to see that our previously-unseen protagonist now has visible hands, which come into view whenever you interact with something. I’ll admit that I was initially a bit disappointed by this. I realised, belatedly, that the way Layers Of Fear previously cast you in the role of a disembodied, floating, occasionally lopsided consciousness enhanced the eeriness considerably.
I was mollified, though, when Kocurek made the excellent point that, in addition to increased budget and technical improvements since 2016, there’s a practical reason to want to make hands happen. The full incarnation of Layers Of Fear will see you switching between half-a-dozen or so player characters, so having ways to visually distinguish between them will be a big help. OK. Fine. Hands are good, I guess. There’s also an increased presence of voice-over lines for the protagonists’ inner monologues, although unlike the hands, you’ll be able to toggle those off if you prefer your spooks a bit more old-school.
Another big departure from the original is the lantern: a newly-introduced mechanic for the remake that is part tool, part weapon, part reason-to-see-hands. Among its numerous functions, the lantern will allow you to stun the antagonist when she gets too close. This raised a number of questions, as in the original there was never an option to fight back. The closest you came to “combat” was the choice to look at the ghost of your character’s dead wife — in which case she might do something nasty to you — or ignore her, thereby robbing her of the ability to mess you up even more. This choice was fundamental in determining which of the original game’s three endings you saw, so the fact that you’ll now be turning around to dazzle her with your lantern beam feels like a pretty major difference.
Kocurek, in his new role as my Layers Of Fear therapist, assures me that there will still be routes to unlocking different endings, and that such encounters may not always even happen, depending on how your behaviour up to that point has shaped your path through the game. He’s also keen to stress that while the addition of such encounters has increased the game’s difficulty slightly from its original status as an infamous horror walking sim, you won’t require lightning-fast reflexes to get through the new sections. Furthermore, under the hood, difficulty in those encounters evolves to match player performance, ensuring higher-skilled players don’t get complacent while those who struggle won’t be locked out of progressing.
The remainder of the preview focused on the game’s new sections, which means that I didn’t get to see anything from the reimagined Inheritance DLC or Layers Of Fear 2 just yet. There was a brief discussion of The Last Note: the new chapter complementing the first Layers Of Fear narrative, which will revisit some familiar scenes from the wife’s point-of-view, resulting in an interesting protagonist/antagonist do-si-do as we finally get her side of the story.
Mainly, though, the focus was on the brand-new story of the Writer, star of the framing narrative which aims to draw the series’ disparate threads together into one connected whole. She’s an intriguing figure. She’s a more modern (although still not present-day) artist, and her seemingly biographical novels about the protagonists from the first two games have brought her to an isolated lighthouse retreat. Cut off from the world with the exception of a dodgy phone-line allowing her to take calls from her adult son, it seems inevitable that the competing pressures of creative expression and familial connection will begin to strain her, in the same way they took their toll on her subjects. Plus lighthouses are just inherently spooky; I feel like you’re guaranteed to start seeing ghosts if you spend several nights alone in one.
The new Layers Of Fear is being described as both the end of an era for Bloober Team and the crowning work of the Layers Of Fear series. It was the original Layers Of Fear — one of the most lauded games to emerge out of the post-P.T. immersive horror boom in the mid-2010s — that put Bloober on the horror gaming map, after all, and it’s clear that Bloober Team are ready to wrap up their work on this series, as they move into their long-awaited remake of Silent Hill 2. But it’s also equally apparent from our chat that they intend to do so while honouring the game’s legacy. As a fan of all things related to Layers Of Fear, it’s heartening to see the series bow out as the connected trilogy it always felt like it should be.
Layers Of Fear is expected in June 2023, though we’re still awaiting an exact release date, and will be available on Steam.