Layers of Fear understands the surface of the horror genre, but it ends up repeating the same surface elements again and again without digging at what makes game players afraid. It's not bad; the game is visually interesting and everything seems to work as intended. It's just the final effect isn't particularly rousing in the same way similar horror titles are.
Layers of Fear is the story of a man, a failed and broken man. He was a dedicated painter, but a raging alcoholic and horrible family man. Some events happened in his past that ruined his entire life. The game has you walking through the withered corpse of his family home, as you tease out what exactly happened to him, his wife, and his daughter.
It's hard to say Layers of Fear is a horror game, because my personal perception of "horror" is that it creates a certain amount of fear and tension in me. That's probably not Layers of Fear's real aim. It's concerned with more with telling its story than trying to scare me. You'll notice the odd limp of your character long before you find out why that's the case. The character's obsession with the rats infesting his home is telegraphed far before the actual pay off. When it's sketching the outlines of its story, Layers of Fear is pretty good. It's like Gone Home with a horror bent, though that game's storytelling outclasses what's found here.
That's not to say that it doesn't try to scare you though. There are weird noises, shuffling horrors in the corners of your vision and at the end of dark hallways. Your daughter's toys and drawings are put to decent effect, because in the absence of normal kids, children's stuff is always creepy.
The house itself shifts and turns around you. Doors will appear and disappear. Reality will warp and distort. You'll turn towards a sound or object, only to find the room having changed while you looked away. Look at this thing, turn away, only to see a new path forward! Inanimate objects will contort into new shapes, or frequently, fly right at you when your back is turned. The latter is one of Layers of Fear's best tricks, one it uses again and again.
The problem is the tension drains right away when you realize there's no danger. Layers of Fear is strongest in its opening moments. Nothing that I found in the game will kill you. You'll see ghosts, but they'll never harm you. You'll have close calls of knives and fans, but you're never in any real trouble. As I got deeper into Layers of Fear, the realization that I'd never be harmed pulled me away from the horror of it all. It's a linear experience and there's only one way forward. Layers of Fear is a digital version of the local haunted houses people wander through every Halloween. It's a well done version, but that doesn't change the fact that you ultimately feel safe.
Layers of Fear seems to be playing on your trust in what you're seeing. That's constantly shifting, so I'd hazard the point is to create a feeling of unease. But without any real danger, the unease just fades away. I found my myself thinking, "Oh, that's really cool," more than I found myself unable to walk down a hallway for fear of dying. Horror games like the original Amnesia or P.T, where you're trapped in a space with something you can't really fight with death potentially right around the corner are terrifying to me. I have to play them in short bursts. I finished Layers of Fear in a single night.
A less linear adventure, or perhaps the addition of something that could actually harm the player would have elevated Layers of Fear into something amazing. If you want a keen haunted house you can wander through at home, the game is worth picking up. If you're looking for a great horror experience, the scares in Layers of Fear won't hold your interest, even with the game's short running time.