A stirring adventure with incredible writing that consistently subverts expectations.

Equal parts unsettling, moving, and eerily beautiful, Layers of Fear 2 is an astonishing feat of storytelling viewed through an off-kilter horror lens that consistently surprised me. It’s a marked improvement on the 2016 original; developer Bloober Team has created one of the most haunting and creatively nuanced horror games I’ve ever played.

Trading surrealist art for classic film, Layers of Fear 2 places you in the role of an actor on an ocean liner. Like the original, Layers of Fear 2 uses the “artist gone mad” concept. This time it’s your movie’s director, whose chilling voice fills the lifeless ship throughout the five Act adventure. Early 1900s-style films play at the end of each act and a chalkboard marks your progress in your room similar to the painting in the original. But unlike the original’s story, which ironically lacked layers, the sequel has more moving parts to decipher, each of which excites and enlightens.

One of the main storylines follows Lily and James, siblings who pretended to be pirates on the ship. Picking up objects such as a monocular or empty cans of food cues interesting audio logs of the siblings’ own experiences that took place there. There’s also the mystery of the crew and passengers who once occupied the vessel. And then there’s the tale of you, the actor, who somehow wound up on this ship for this strange role. Each of these superb arcs entwine to create a whole that is both disorienting and, yes, satisfyingly layered.

Steeped in such madness, it’s no surprise that a significant portion of the dialogue borders on the nonsensical. The obtuseness can be a tad much at times, but the delirious diatribes of the director, which are riddled with contradictions and philosophical tangents, frequently border on the profound as well. That’s perhaps the greatest strength of the story: its prowess for making me believe, if even for a moment, that the crazy words coming from the void are the stuff of genius. Coupled with Lily’s doleful lyrical poetry and the earnest performance of her younger brother, Layers of Fear 2 has some of the sharpest writing I’ve seen – not just in horror games, but across all genres. On multiple occasions, I loaded the most recent checkpoint to listen to the words again to try and fully absorb their meaning.

Multiple endings exist as possibilities in Layers of Fear 2, but the process for seeing each isn’t exactly clear. Some junctures are presented as critical choice-based moments, but most of the time you don’t actually have a choice at all. Though these moments work well thematically, it seems easy to miss the actual, subtle moments that trigger alternate endings. Unfortunately, you cannot revisit a previous acts of the story, so you’d have to do a New Game+ run and likely know what you’re looking for ahead of time to ensure you get a different ending.

Layers of Fear 2 kept me on the edge of my seat by constantly toying with environments the moment I looked away.

Even though the spoken and written story excels, the brunt of Layers of Fear 2’s magic lies in the environments you explore. The ocean liner is more of a central hub than a confining setting, and visiting other locations keeps it from becoming too familiar. But what makes this world so interesting is that, like the P.T.-inspired original, Layers of Fear 2 kept me on the edge of my seat by constantly toying with environments the moment I looked away. A door that you just walked through may be gone when you turn around, revealing a new corridor in its place. Other passages lead to entirely new environments outside of the ship, such as floating skyscrapers, ominous gardens, and labyrinths. Lighting effects further exacerbate the horrors that appear both while staring directly at them and when looking away for just a moment. Some of these scenes, the ones that I seemingly stumbled into by accident, made my jaw drop in awe.

Layers of Fear 2’s clever environment-changing design remains remarkable throughout the roughly eight-hour story. The transformations are methodically placed, deftly masking the linearity of each act. There’s usually only one place to go to advance the story, but I still felt like I was exploring a much more open space thanks to its shifting architecture. Each area has a remarkable attention to detail, which makes the illusions all the more stunning. Objects you can interact with help shape the story between scripted moments, but even the stationary pieces, the ones that do not shift at all, feel carefully placed to add context the story.

On a moment-to-moment basis, I never knew what to expect. The majority of the frights rely on these changes, which made me feel as if the floor beneath me, the walls that boxed me in, and the decorations that brought it all to life were nothing but facades crafted by the devious director to mess with me. As you progress through the five acts, global changes begin to ripple throughout the entire ship. The pristine corridors you walk through in one act can turn unkempt and decrepit in later sections. Long-locked doors you’ve passed by several times now open, revealing entire new sections of the vessel. Your room also changes to fit the character that you’re becoming in real time. Fragmented cutscenes, areas, and objects that occupy these spaces come together to form a whole, filling the shrouded frames of the film reel.

Sound is equally as important as sight in producing effective horror, and Layers of Fear 2 uses it masterfully. Voices can be heard talking behind closed doors, whispers fill the room randomly, metronomes tick back and forth, the static of a radio sifts through a darkened hallway. The sound effects complement the shifting environments as they often unfold in tandem, upping the atmospheric horror to another level.

Layers of Fear 2 has some seriously splendid puzzles that often help inform the events of the story.

Layers of Fear 2 also has more traditional scares than the original. Keeping with the film theme, creepy mannequins are scattered throughout the ship as if they are acting out scenes. Sometimes their appendages move as you inch closer. A subtle head turn, an outstretched arm, a full body movement. You would think these scares would get predictable, but the timing and sparing use of them keeps it fresh all the way until the end. Occasionally, a bizarre, bubbling monster appears, sometimes taking the place of a mannequin, sometimes moving in ways that make clear references to other horror movie monsters.  The monster chases you, forcing you to run, shut doors behind you, and wait for the pursuit to stop. If it gets close enough, you instantly die – that doesn’t set you back very much due to a generous checkpoint system, but combine the innate fear of being chased by an unknown entity with the already persistent uneasiness of the ship itself and you have a recipe for genuinely terrifying scenes.

Though certainly story-driven, Layers of Fear 2 has some seriously splendid puzzles that often help inform the events of the story. A couple play with the shifting environments, requiring you to make certain movements to reveal doors or safe pathways to avoid the monster. One has you water the shadow of a plant, while another tests your math skills with a clock face. Projector puzzles reveal doors and windows after carefully sifting through the frames. More action-oriented sequences have you avoid a spotlight or duck behind set pieces as raging flames fill the screen. It still has more rote puzzles like finding the combination to locks somewhere in the surrounding area or jigsaw puzzle-style object sequences, but Layers of Fear 2 does a great job of making almost every puzzle feel different than the last.

The Verdict

Carried by hauntingly beautiful writing and an unsettling atmosphere, Layers of Fear 2 is one of the most stunning horror games of this generation. Using classic film and a descent into madness as its anchor, its rich ocean liner setting changes at every turn, producing constant unease in just the right way. With unique puzzles and expert pacing, Layers of Fear 2 is a harrowing and consistently exciting endeavor.

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