Bloober Team has had a time of it when it comes to making games. The original Layers of Fear was a resounding success upon launch back in 2016. However, that success has been much more elusive in the following years, what with Blair Witch, Observer, and even Layers of Fear 2 receiving mixed responses. So why not return to that well that brought so much success in the past? And if you’re going to do that, why not also ensure you make the best version of the game thus far released?
The PS5 version of Layers of Fear consists of both main games, two DLC expansions — one of them, The Final Note, brand new — as well as a new chapter revolving around a writer, which serves as a way to unite the series into one experience. This new framing device is particularly interesting, as it helps to essentially transform the entire Layers of Fear series into one cohesive game. And it works surprisingly well. You play as a writer staying at an ominous lighthouse, using it as an artistic retreat to get writing once again. While there, you uncover stories or have ideas that all harken back to the events of the previous games and expansions.
Though everything in the series is more or less operating on the same level now, the original title remains the real star. With its haunting gothic mansion and hypnotic paintings, the journey of "the painter" remains a highly engaging, deeply disturbing experience. The "melting" paintings and spontaneous reconfiguring of rooms remain as compelling and exciting to behold as they ever were. This gameplay component is a great tool for puzzles, as you can lock away new areas and solutions through clever visual trickery. Having the world around you fundamentally change based on the angle you happen to be looking at it is incredible, and that element of disorientation is an incredibly effective tool when it comes to horror. Bloober carries that principle forward to the DLC and sequel as well, though with diminishing returns each time.
The gameplay does stand out in how little it has evolved when playing through the series in a package like this. While not quite as devoid of interaction as a traditional walking simulator, Layers of Fear does walk this line precariously, embracing it more fully with LoF2 and the writer's vignette. While the environments are nice enough to walk through and just collect story tidbits, things are definitely more compelling when the title is making use of its twisting, evolving environments to set up puzzles. This is less true when you have to run away from enemies, though — a cheap tactic that neither heightens the horror nor adds to the experience. The environments you find yourself in serve well enough as an "enemy" on their own that none of these chase sequences are remotely necessary.
As the original releases of the titles got marginally less compelling with each entry, this collection takes the time to level the playing field. At its most basic, the visual fidelity of everything is at the same level now, which is to say stunning. Every detail of every environment looks incredible, drastically heightening the horror. The introduction of HDR is especially noticeable in painting-heavy areas, and lighting is all-around fantastic. Although, this does come at the cost of fairly regular frame rate dips if you prioritise the graphical fidelity. The performance mode is rock solid at 60 frames-per-second and looks nearly as good, so we recommend that.
Sound design is phenomenal as well, yet another important staple of good horror. Ambient sound design is great, capturing every creak of the house — or ship in 2 — while leaving enough room for the haunting whispers and unnatural noises waiting to pop out around every corner. With all this, the title does a great job of sidestepping an over-reliance on jump scares. Sure, there are still plenty of these, but in many cases, they are earned. By nature of your environments reconfiguring themselves in a split second, a sudden loud noise is rather appropriate. As such, these scares don’t overstay their welcome, and even heighten the experience in a way relatively few other horror titles are able to realise.
This praise is a little harder to dish out with the voice acting, however. The voice work from all of the original content is fine, with great performances given by the painter, the wife, or Tony Todd’s director in 2, but all of the new content includes questionable voice work. It’s in such stark contrast with the remainder of the experience, that it stands out much further than it otherwise may.
A new inclusion to the collection is the chapter mode, which allows you to go back and replay chapters, or find new things without having to worry about contaminating your main save. Branching stories and multiple endings are a staple of Layers of Fear, and this explorative mode makes it a little easier to explore and witness how some of these decisions can differ. All while finding and exploring more of the game's eye-watering number of collectibles.
The updated version of Layers of Fear is incredibly impressive. In addition to offering high-quality remakes of the entire series, this version goes a step forward and creates new material with the explicit purpose of bringing all pre-existing content of the series under one umbrella. The exceptional visual overhaul, fascinating transforming environments, and great sound design ensure this horror series has done a phenomenal job of making sure it continues to be an experience worth having.