Tl;DR: Layers of Fear is a psychological horror game with an intense atmosphere and emotional value. It’s less a fun game or even much of a game at all and more of an experience and work of art. Well worth 20 euro on stream[link].
The game starts with no contextual information or objectives other than to finish your painting, as you explore on, you’ll find notes scattered throughout the house, sometimes in obvious places and sometimes in obscure drawers and closets, which I think was intended as a way to encourage exploration and reveal the story in digestible, noninvasive chunks. Finding these notes and memorabilia on my own accord did seem to drive curiosity into the plot itself, and it got me asking questions, but at the cost of having to search every drawer, cupboard and crevice I encounter or else feel I missed something important. Furthermore, the levels warp and twist around as you explore them, often irrevocably and the game considers the path you take for one of several final endings, so whenever I go to search a cupboard for notes there is an anxiety that doing so will trigger my scenery to change and I won’t be able to check all the other possible note locations in that room. So I check everywhere in a level in order of which locations are least likely to do something significant, walking across the entire level(which could vary from one room to several) for each possible location, and it is a lot of frustrating back-and-fourth.
Though don’t get me wrong, the levels morph smoothly in unexpected ways, they’re well-designed and beautiful:
In terms of fear the game gave me many sustained periods of intense terror. A lot of horror games are built around jump scares and the anticipation of them and while they’re an experience the first time, after that I find myself usually prepared for any future jump scares, and as soon as a “worst case scenario” has been reached such as you dying and re-spawning, they stop being scary at all. Layers of Fear is different for several reasons; its horror isn’t really ‘built’ around any type of horror rigidly, it is very scary in an atmospheric way and I think it maintains a fear of the unknown pretty well by never establishing a worst case scenario. In Outlast etc. I could remind myself “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen here, but it can’t be worse than dying, and that’s not so bad” and it desensitized me from jump-scares, fear of the unknown and atmospheric horror. Layers of Fear kept its tools sharp; I never quite knew what to expect. I knew that the ending depended on many things so I was greatly motivated to confront and avoid various sources of fear.
The game is very authentic and impressive on a technical level. Hardly anything about it is cheap, suspense is built artfully from many methods. Its not that fun of a game in the traditional sense, but it is extremely atmospheric, emotional and an experience definitely worth having. More like a great painting than a game. I’d definitely recommend it if you don’t strictly think games should be fun, but just an experience of any flavour.