Layers of Fear 2's cryptic story is filled with film references and well-earned scares, making it the perfect digestible game for any horror buff.
The job of an actor is to study the soul. That's why the greatest performances give breath to characters even when they are not on screen. Some method actors even journey so deep into a role that they can lose themselves, becoming someone (or something) else entirely. Layers of Fear 2 is, on the surface, a horror game where the player must navigate a cruise ship. But just below the crest of the waves of its watery depths lies a journey into the subconscious and an examination of an actor's life.
Layers of Fear 2 is a sequel only in the spiritual sense to Bloober Team's 2016 hit about an artist finishing his masterpiece. Here, the player works to finish a similar magnum opus; their performance in a movie being filmed on a moving vessel. They are guided by The Director, voiced by horror legend Tony Todd as they work to uncover their character through a process that can only be described as horrifying. Though the game is cryptic, it can be surmised that this role is deeply rooted in the actor's past, and only by confronting their demons can they play the part.
While acting in real life has its fair share of complications, it cannot be said that actors must literally solve puzzles and navigate a hellscape of their own making. In Layers of Fear 2, that is just what the player must do. The story is broken up into 5 Acts, similar to the Shakespearean tragedies it proudly touts as references. From Hamlet to The Tempest, there's a persistent idea that those who are broken must rebuild themselves through confronting what they have done. In this game, that takes the form of running through hallways filled with formless mannequins, returning to a childhood home, and playing pretend with the memory of a sister. Each step forward alters the path, creating a quest rooted in player choice that revels in the macabre.
The gameplay is simple and the puzzles a never challenging enough for Layers of Fear 2 to be considered a difficult game. Even the most cryptic of riddles generally has an obvious solution. But in their form and as a function to the largely story, they are works of near genius. One such great puzzle involves shifting the light in a projector to create a door, another requires the player to fire a cannon and follow the light the projectiles create. While the "Game Over" screen wasn't a common occurrence in the 5-hour of so playthrough, when it did appear it felt earned. The solve became obvious upon replaying the section, the horror less formidable.
Layers of Fear 2 doesn't go for the easy jump scare either. Its most horrific moments are also its most delicate and atmospheric: hands slowly reaching across a hallway towards you as the music builds, a boiler room filled with droning humanoids. The attention to detail and lighting are impossible not to gush about. Often a dimly-lit cabin becomes a canvas to some larger exploration; tapping on a radio transforms it into a den for a shifting carcass. The occasional "monster" feels out of place in a game that rewards the player for exploration, but these scares are still expertly done.
Getting to the end may be the ultimate goal for the scaredy-cat gamer (no shame), but in order to understand the full scope of the game and get the "good" ending, each route must be taken. There's even a New Game Plus mode, allowing players to replay Acts, gathering all the collectibles to reveal the full story. There are audio recordings, projector slides, and movie posters to collect. Each recording and slide offers a glimpse into the life of the character and his odyssey into the self. The posters acknowledge the game's many references from the overt (Wizard of Oz, The Shining) to those less obvious or more obscure (Nosferatu, A Trip to the Moon). The world of Layers of Fear 2 is rife with fear of course, but also imagination. It's a world that earns a return visit, especially given the short play time.
We all play pretend to some extent. Whether we act like the person we want people to perceive us as, or just hide the parts of ourselves we know are broken. Though LoF2's message may be cryptic at first, with every layer that is pulled back, more insight is revealed. If life is a stage, and all the men and women are merely players... where does that put you? What does it mean to be the captain of your own destiny? Will you let your past define you, or your future? The player is confronted with each question with the brute force of a formless ghost. The horror is real, but you may not be.
Layers of Fear 2 is available for PC, PS4, and Xbox One for $29.99. Screen Rant was provided with a Steam code for the purposes of this review.