Friday, March 11, 2016

One night stands

Better yet, a marginally creepy one night stand.

Jokes about stamina aside, I do enjoy a game that says all it has to say in about three or so hours. No padding, no back tracking, just one sitting's worth of game for a reasonable price. Brothers did this quite well, Among the Sleep not so much. Layers of Fear sits somewhere in between, providing a linear narrative akin to a very good haunted house with a staunch 'alcohol is bad' message.

Horror games tends to have a central idea, or hook, around which the rest of the gameplay, scares included, is built. Silent Hill, when it was good, had dual worlds, one more unnerving than the last. Fatal Frame had its camera. Outlast had a similar idea with a night vision video recorder. Among the Sleep had a sense of scale for the first level or two before it fell apart. Layers of Fear establishes very early on that game world is not to be trusted, that the layout of a room can change behind the players back.

As the game progresses it gets less subtle, from a door appearing where there wasn't one before to all of the furniture floating midair, as if you caught a bunch of poltergeist moving men in the middle of their job. I am not going to lie, that one got me pretty good. Just when the player gets used to the world changing when he or she is not looking the game will stop doing it, allow a sense of normalcy to return, then BOOM a door is opened and there is a giant eyeball behind it.

So the sights are good, though the frame rate on the Xbox One is not good. The sounds are good, making liberal use of my subwoofer for thunder that rolled through the walls of my basement. But is the game any good? Is it any more than a creepy walking simulator?


Most rooms see little more activity than opening cabinets and drawers, looking for notes that explain the sparse story and paint the protagonist as more and more of an insufferable dick. Others are filled to overflowing with empty wine bottles or, if you are really unlucky, rats. There is the occasional puzzle, some of which require thought and investigation, but they are optional and the game does not do a very good job of indicating what is and is not required until it is too late to go back and catch something that was missed. On more than one occasion I solved a puzzle, got a key that I assumed was needed to progress, and then was barred from returning to the locked door because I went into the wrong room and the whole world ceased to exist behind me.

Or I died. Sort of. There is no 'fail state' to the game. If you are killed by the ghost that wanders a few levels (that the game tells you to ignore, but no, I had to try to go into the room with the sobbing spirit, so I got what I deserved) you are just placed into another room and allowed to work your way back to the main path. This did not bother me because it kept the game moving and allowed me to get to the end in one sitting, as I believe the game was intended to be played. There was no consequence for these mistakes other than getting a poorer ending.

After having watched the 'good' ending I have decided that I prefer my bad one. It is much more fitting, depressing, stygian.

Layers of Fear is not going to send anyone running for cover out of abject terror, especially not veterans of the genre. No game has scared me since the first Amnesia and I doubt one will. Layers of Fear did, though, surprise me several times, and at least once I muttered 'yeah, that's pretty good' in a effort to keep my composure. A creepy doll rhythmically banging its head on the side of crib will do that. It really is just a walking simulator, but the walk is through a very well made, if linear, haunted house. If you let it the game will engulf you.

And if you walk through scoffing at the trap doors and behind the scenes machinations that make it all work, well, then you deserve to not be entertained.

1 comment:

  1. That last sentence is so true about so much. I am 100% against being a gaming contrarian. I.E. constantly goofing off and forcing the game to react to it.

    Just watch the magic show, guys! I don't care how he's doing it.