Now you can wet your pants anywhere you go!
No feeling is quite like sitting in a public space with headphones on, playing Switch, and suddenly jumping a few feet into the air as something jumps out at you. The Switch offers me the opportunity to appear the cowardly fool in more locations than ever before. Thus far, no game has been more prolific in this field than Layers of Fear. It is a story-driven, explorative, horror experience, with the occasional puzzle thrown in for good measure. It would be easy to write it off as a walking simulator, but the trepidation that precedes every step helps it to grow to something more.
Things start out generically enough: you find yourself in a presumably empty house on a dark and stormy night with no evident backstory. Through exploration, you’ll uncover notes and other clues to your own tragic history. Quickly, the house becomes less a physical location, and more a manifestation of the protagonist’s own demented psyche. This is where Layers of Fear’s most effective mechanic comes into play. After completing the first segment of the game, the player will always venture out into the house from a starting point in their art studio. However, no door in Layers of Fear ever leads to the same place twice. As soon as you leave the safety of your studio, finding a way back in becomes your primary objective. Often times you’ll enter a room only to turn around and realize that what was a door is now a twisting hallway. The fluid and constantly changing world that Layers of Fear presents comes with a pervasive feeling of unease, as you can never trust in what is behind you. While I did eventually come to expect a scare any time I turned around from focusing on an object, it didn’t make the scare itself any less effective. Yes the formula can be somewhat repetitive, but the variety and creativity with which that formula can be use to scare me is seemingly endless.
When Layers of Fear released on PC back in 2016, I remember being very impressed by its visual polish. The Switch version doesn’t quite measure up to that initial release, as is to be expected, but it makes smart cuts in exchange for solid performance. Whether playing docked or handheld, Layers of Fear turns in mostly solid frame rates with only the occasional stutter now and then. Clearly great effort was put into adjusting the game to run well on Switch. The developer even included optional motion controls, allowing you to pillage drawers, and cautiously open doors using the right Joy-Con. While certainly not a game changer, the motion controls work well and I found myself using them subconsciously while playing in docked mode. The default turn speed and acceleration took some getting use to, and I could definitely feel that it had its roots in mouse and keyboard controls. However these settings are customizable if like me you feel like something is off.
Many horror games rely on random sound scares to keep the player on edge, even when nothing is happening. Layers of Fear doesn’t do that. Every sound is deliberate and relates to something that's actually happening in the world. Often times they even serve as auditory clues to the changes happening in the house around you. Playing horror games with headphones results in a lot of cheap jump scares, but Layers of Fear only scares you when it has something legitimately scary on hand.
Layers of Fear may at first glance fit into the often derided walking simulator subgenre, but its impressive design makes it a much deeper and more memorable experience than one would initially expect. It represents an effective Switch port and even goes out of its way to include a motion control option. In the Switch’s growing library of horror titles, Layers of Fear has positioned itself as a powerful front runner.