Horror games (and movies for that matter) are a hit and miss affair for most people. What one person finds scary, another might find dull or even laughable. The Nintendo Switch has had a fair number of games in the genre thus far, including Don’t Knock Twice and Resident Evil Revelations 1 & 2. Ever since Amnesia hit it big on the PC several years ago, a ton of smaller studios have tackled the first-person “walking simulator” horror genre. Only the ones that are able to combine excellent storytelling with intriguing exploration manage to impress me, and luckily Layers of Fear: Legacy succeeds.
You begin the game knowing very little of the person you’re controlling or what’s happening in the world. By exploring the rooms of the house and reading notes and newspaper clippings the story begins to take shape. Whereas games like Uncharted beat you over the head with cinema scenes and constant narrative throughout the gameplay, Layers of Fear expects you to do the legwork. Only by opening every cabinet and drawer and looking in every nook and cranny will you fully unravel the intricate web of who you are and what you’ve done.
A few facts are obvious from the start. You’re a painter who has had some great success over the past few years. In fact, some think you have it all: a beautiful wife who excels at playing the piano to sold-out performances and a daughter who adores you. However, things are not always as they seem, and just like real life you never really know a person or what he’s capable of unless you’re an intimate part of his life. As you begin to dig deeper and put the pieces together, you realize that strife and turmoil run rampant in this household, and the horrifying truth might just be too much to bear.
As I mentioned, you’ll be exploring this huge mansion via a first-person viewpoint. You can open and close almost every cupboard and drawer you see. At first this was kind of fun, but after performing these actions a few hundred times I couldn’t help but have Shenmue flashbacks of searching and searching and finding nothing. It appears even the designers got tired of creating new and unique chests and drawers because many times they were identical, with even the same exact items inside. This sort of broke the realism for me, but then again we’re talking about a game rife with hallucinations, paranormal events, and doors that open and close on their own.
The game plays out across several chapters. The gameplay loop has you exploring a part of the house and activating voice clips by finding specific items. At the end of this mostly linear experience is an item that must be found to complete your painting. These items are pretty disturbing and only get more so as you progress. It’s very possible to miss important pieces of the narrative if you don’t seek out every piece of paper or look at every item. One thing that kind of bugged me, and I’ve seen this in other games of this type too, is that you can often pick up objects and rotate them and look at them, but there’s really no use for them. I was hoping to amass an inventory of items to use to solve puzzles in some manner, but that never happened – which seems like a wasted potential. That’s not to say there aren’t puzzles in the game, because there are several scattered throughout. They’re usually very straightforward, but I was happy to see them in a game like this.
Most of the game has you exploring your past by walking around the house and witnessing events that have already transpired. There are a bunch of rooms to explore, and quite often you’ll be treated to jump scares or other psychological trickery. Chairs will move on their own, doors will reveal bricks walls behind them with words scrawled across them, and you’ll often get lost in this psychedelic and tortured world. The game does a fantastic job of creating ambiance via the unique set pieces and the exceptional sound design. Not only are some images disturbing, but also you’ll also often hear things off in the distance that are unsettling. If you’ve ever watched LOST, you’ll probably have the hair on the back of your neck stand up when you hear the familiar whispering coming from somewhere in the room. I feel the game is at its best when it slowly builds up its creep factor, and unfortunately that was spoiled by too many jump scares, that often weren’t that scary to begin with. More than once the game sort of hitched as a jump scare was supposed to occur, tipping me off before it even happened. Even so, I will admit to jumping more than once at unexpected events.
As you complete each chapter and dive further into the craziness, the game continues to impress. I was actually invested in the main character and although they game clues you in on what’s happened to him and his family, it does so with broad strokes. This cleverly leaves some of the details up to your imagination, which can often be far worse than reality. There is some truly unsettling stuff in this game, both visually and via documents you find and read. This of course leaves some of the storytelling up to the player, and I can see some missing out on major details if they rush through the rooms. This is a game best enjoyed by exploring each room slowly and methodically.
Where the game sort of falls short is in the gameplay department. There’s just not a ton of fun things to do. You basically walk around and open drawers and read documents and look at items that you probably won’t be able to use. This is par for the course for game like these, but for once I’d like to see a game break out of the traditional mold and offer up something innovative and exciting. For a game all about paintings I found it odd that not once could we pick up the brush and draw our own art. The controls were mostly fine, but sometimes opening doors and drawers would be weird – sometimes opening half way and then start to close again, whether you’re using the analog sticks or the motion controls. The HD Rumble was often so underutilized that I almost didn’t feel anything at all. Plus, the game suffers from some framerate hiccups here and there, especially when turning. I was also surprised at the amount of jaggies on some objects when viewed from a distance, but they usually disappeared up close. The game looks fine in handheld mode, but you’ll definitely want to wear headphones to get the full experience.
When all is said and done, Layers of Fear: Legacy is a memorable game with some truly haunting imagery. I recommend playing the game in one or two sittings if possible to maintain the flow and atmosphere of the game. I wish the game focused a little more on freedom of exploration instead of blocking paths as soon as you pick one. The layout of the house is almost never solidified because you end up jumping around or hitting a dead end only to have the very door you just walked through lead somewhere completely different. While this adds to the trickery, it also means there’s often very little cohesion and sense of place. The game does have its spooky moments and more than once I felt a little uneasy going into the next room. If there were more substance to the gameplay and rewards for exploring every single place then the game would have scored even higher. As it is, it offers up some good scary entertainment and if you take your time and don’t rush through it should last four or five hours. It’s definitely one of the better horror games thus far on the Switch.
Layers of Fear: Legacy was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.