Peel back the layers and there's a clear connective tissue tying Layers of Fear 2 and its predecessor together. Both games are centered around an artist gradually losing their grip on reality. While the original game focused on a struggling painter in an opulent Victorian mansion, Layers of Fear 2 shifts art forms to tell the story of a Hollywood actor during the Golden Age of cinema, as he embarks on a new role in a movie being shot aboard a decadent ocean liner. Developer Bloober Team has created something more varied and ambitious than its past work, taking inspiration from iconic film directors like Georges Méliès, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock. And while it is a visually striking horror game, Layers of Fear 2 struggles to establish its own identity and explore its themes of anguish and despair in meaningful ways.
The story itself is like a jigsaw puzzle; some of the pieces come together as the narrative unfolds, but others are scattered across the environment as notes, optional puzzles, sound recordings, and paraphernalia that provide new details on your character's troubled past. You might not be able to put the whole picture together before the game's conclusion, but it's a familiar and clichéd tale that isn't too difficult to discern once events begin to wrap up. Childhood trauma is the key motif, built around the relationship you had with your sister, but Layers of Fear 2 regularly uses routine horror tropes as opposed to something more personal. This decision doesn't coalesce with the story to provide a sense that your character's state of mind and past anguish are shaping what's happening. During the first act you catch spectral forms out of the corner of your eye, and this eventually evolves into frequent appearances from crudely assembled mannequins and a formless monster that stalks you through much of the game. These creatures are unnerving, but they're not really specific to the game or this character, failing to capitalize on the strengths of psychological horror and the inherent importance of a character's fears and trepidations in manifesting intimate threats.
Similarly, much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way. Saying it takes place aboard a ship is a tad disingenuous, as the setting is constantly shifting and transporting you to a variety of disparate environments. Overt homages to films such as The Wizard of Oz, A Trip to the Moon, and Nosferatu are littered throughout the game. Some of them are deftly woven into the narrative and the game's own art style, but others lack context and fail to rise above being mere visual spectacles, foregoing any semblance of cohesion with the rest of the game. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you have an appreciation for this era of cinema, but it also makes Layers of Fear 2 feel like an inconsequential mishmash of film references without any clear significance to the story it's trying to tell.
Much of Layers of Fear 2's art design is wrapped around the classic films that inspired it, which doesn't always come together in a consistent way
Your interactions with the world are very tangible, which helps ground you in the game's setting even when the threads of reality are stretched thinner and thinner. The majority of your time is spent simply exploring each space, gathering knick-knacks to fill in the story, and solving puzzles to progress. The conundrums it places before you are never particularly challenging or memorable, whether it's using a dial with 10 numbers to multiply up to a specific digit or manipulating a roll of film to create a doorway. Some of them are in keeping with the tone of the game and its cinematic feel, but others are so inane they just feel out of place.
What Layers of Fear 2 does do well is build atmosphere and an ever-escalating sense of dread. The score is ominous, utilizing string instruments to send a chill down your spine. But there are also plenty of opportunities for the sound design to breathe on its own, too. The creaking of wooden floorboards, rats scurrying past your feet, and the plip-plop of dripping water create tension despite their mundanity. It also makes you hesitant to simply turn around, as the environment toys with impossible spaces, distorting the world around you when you're not looking. When you walk into a room and find a locked door with nowhere else to go but back the way you came, the suspense hits, tapping into that fear of the unknown--of what's waiting to greet you once you turn your head.
Unfortunately, these anxiety-inducing feelings diminish as the game progresses and it leans too heavily on tried and tested tactics. The aforementioned mannequins are consistently impressive due to their creepy stop-motion-esque movement, but they're featured so heavily that their effect as something to be scared of is severely diminished. This is a problem with Layers of Fear 2 as a whole; the protracted playtime of around 10 hours struggles to maintain its early momentum through the last couple of chapters. The formless creature that oftentimes stalks you adds some urgency to what is otherwise a methodical affair, but the most terrifying thing about the chase sequences is the threat of having to redo them if you fail. Sometimes the monster's arrival comes so suddenly that you're dead before even realizing what's happened, and these cheap insta-kills mean you're frustratingly subjected to the same death animation over and over again.
There are remnants of an excellent horror game submerged just below the surface of Layers of Fear 2. Horror icon Tony Todd--of Candyman fame--lends his bassy growl to the disembodied and omnipresent voice of the film's eccentric director. Each word he bellows is a sonorous treat, no matter how terrifying his performance is. The art design, too, while disjointed, conjures some breathtaking imagery that you can't help but marvel at. It's just a shame that Layers of Fear 2 frequently pays lip service to the films and games that clearly inspired it while struggling to find a voice of its own. The story is too hazy to latch onto until the latter stages, and then nothing about it is particularly engaging, with its central mystery building towards something we've seen numerous times before. It occasionally hints at interesting themes but fails to go anywhere with them, falling back on telegraphed jump scares rather than delving deeper into the psychological horror it can only tease at. For every piece of good work there's an analogous aspect that lacks focus and direction. Layers of Fear 2 feels lost at sea.
There aren't enough animated game trailers out there and I genuinely appreciate that Dead Cells provides them at weirdly regular junctures that are pretty fun. This one is to celebrate the release of the Rise of the Giant DLC, a free semi-expansion that has been available on PC for some time. It's now on PlayStation 4 and Switch, so players can enjoy the new bosses and new areas it provides.
In addition to the trailer and the DLC, Motion Twin has confirmed that Dead Cells has sold two million copies across all systems. This is a pretty unqualified success for Motion Twin, which functions somewhat experimentally as a developer with a flat structure in terms of hierarchy. In absolute terms, two million in the indie market is huge, and speaks to how a critically successful idea can take off.
Dead Cells is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, and soon mobile platforms. Rise of the Giant will also be coming to Xbox One, but a last minute bug in the certification process delayed the release on that platform, which Motion Twin says will "come a bit later."
You might have noticed that we have Marvel fever this month at Game Informer thanks to our cover story of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3, the upcoming Nintendo-published Switch exclusive. We've already had a bunch of exclusive features, footage, and discussion of the game, but Nintendo's also supplying some new trailers, like this one focusing on the X-Men.
You can check out the latest Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 trailer below.
While we've known Wolverine is in the game since its initial reveal trailer at The Game Awards last year, but Marvel's recent attempts in the last few years to tap down on publicizing the other X-Men made their appearance in Ultimate Alliance 3 somewhat dicey. Thankfully, this trailer confirms that a number of the mutants are making it in, including Nightcrawler and Psylocke.
In Observation you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station that represents the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your abilities are limited by your absence of a corporeal form--for most of the game you're controlling the cameras dotted around the station and interacting with any computers or digital panels within their range of vision. You have access to a station map that expands over time, and you're able to jump between cameras across the entire ship at will. It might sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to craft a compelling, creepy, and extremely original narrative experience.
The year is 2026, and you're on the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who awakens at the game's beginning to find that she has no contact with the rest of her crew on board. It's immediately clear that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in Earth's orbit, and no-one is answering her attempts at communication. To say much more would be to spoil elements of a plot that are best left to surprise you--the first major twist happens within about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that Observation's narrative unfurls slowly across the entire length of the game, with its mysteries growing all the more complicated and your sense of dread deepening as the game goes on.
Observation absolutely nails its distinct lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you shift between them, and the stylistic film grain and distortion over every visual emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works of the last forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott's Alien--some of the tech aboard the space station feel like antiquated products of a decade long past. This aesthetic, paired with the game's too-near future setting, gives Observation the pleasant feeling of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is far and away the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even when you load up your own system menu (which lets you view the map, check system alerts, and perform other functions that unlock during the game) you're treated to some pleasantly analog and retro buzzing and whirring sound effects.
You experience most of the game through the slow panning and zooming cameras, an effective tool at creating a creeping sense of tension, although the occasional cutscene is used to better capture action at a crucial moment. It's not about jump scares or personally being in danger; again, to say too much more would be to spoil the game's clever pacing, but it's a game that's incredibly effective at building dread more than overt terror.
The actual gameplay is, for the most part, pretty simple. You need to explore the ship as much as you can from your various vantage points, scanning every document and inspecting every laptop you encounter, opening and shutting hatch doors, and interacting with the station's equipment. The bulk of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM's interface, finding schematics to help you operate certain programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you are given.
The game does an excellent job of taking complex ideas and procedures and presenting them as simple operations. Everything from opening the airlock to securing the doors between sections of the station boils down to a few button presses; occasionally you'll have to take part in what is essentially a timed mini-game, but for the most part, you're just following basic instructions. The main challenge comes from figuring out how the different parts of the ship all work together, and reasoning through the impact of your actions and what information you do and don't currently have access to.
At certain points, you'll need to control a spherical droid that can float around the station--and, more excitingly, outside the station--freely. It's a bit of a pain to control in tight spots, and it's easy to lose your bearings because the concepts of up and down are relative in zero-gravity environments. But there's a real thrill in breaking free from the static cameras and floating through the station, and in getting used to the sphere's limitations. Observation doles these sections out expertly, using the droid when it needs to make you feel more a part of what is happening. It plays on the droid's symbolic sense of place extremely well; it's the physical element of SAM that sells Emma's growing friendship with him.
Often what you need to do next, and how to do it, will be spelled out extremely clearly, though the game's instructions could stand to be a tad clearer in a few sections. One time it seemed like I had hit a particularly abstract puzzle, but it turned out that I'd actually encountered a glitch where a certain event didn't trigger properly, which necessitated a quick checkpoint reset. This was a pain, as the game's checkpointing can be a bit strict--you keep any information you've collected through scanning objects, but it doesn't save after major actions, so it's hard to know exactly what you'll have to redo when you exit out. But it's not too big an issue, as I never lost more than a few minutes of progress.
Slowly discovering every system on board, inspecting every room, and unlocking more menus and commands within SAM's UI is an absolute treat. Observation is a visual stunner, with only the odd lip-sync issue occasionally distracting from the level of polish and craft on display. Later events ramp up the inherent creepy isolation of a space station perfectly, too. The story is compelling and exciting right up until the credits roll, and the game doesn't let up on revelations, twists, or the increasing tension of knowing that the game is building towards something wild. Observation also achieves the extremely rare feat of containing audio logs that are both compelling and make sense within its world.
Observation is a wonderful example of how to do focused, self-contained science-fiction storytelling in a game. It's well-written and clever, and nails the sci-fi tropes and aesthetics it both plays to and builds upon. It's a game that demands to be analyzed and thought about further once you're done with it, and while the internal world of the game is small, inhabiting it is a real pleasure.
Frontier has just announced its ambitious Planet Coaster: Ghostbusters DLC for PC. The studio seems to be going all out for the new content pack to bring players an authentic Ghostbusters experience.
The content pack is said to include a fully-voiced, narrative campaign, featuring Dan Aykroyd and William Atherton themselves. It also comes with new in-game items such as, the interactive ghostbusting ride called 'The Ghostbusting Experience' and a slimer-themed kiddie coaster called the 'RollerGhoster'.
Classic Ghostbuster characters also make an appearance, including Raymond Stantz, Slimer, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and a few more surprise faces. Lastly, it includes authentic scenery pieces and sounds right out of the original film, such as the Ghostbusters HQ, Ecto-1, and Ray Parker J's unforgettable Ghostbusters theme.
Throughout the campaign, Dan Aykroyd mentors the players and helps them build their park and fight off ghostly issues that are thrown their way. Though nostalgia is a key factor in this DLC, players who have grown up without the classic movie can still find satisfaction in the campaign and build a strong coaster park with the new items.
We haven't heard much about Nioh 2 since its announcement at last year's E3, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja release new footage of its highly anticipated sequel today. This is our first big look at the gameplay, which shows plenty of quick dodging, cool special moves, and larger-than-life bosses. Oh yeah, and expect to see a lot of a bloodshed, but that's a given at this point.
Alongside the trailer, which you can watch in full above, Team Ninja also announced a Closed Alpha via Twitter to gather feedback. It starts on 5/24 and goes through 6/2, but details are scarce on how to get in on it as the tweet says only "some PS4 users" will be invited. You can read the full tweet below.
The original Nioh turned heads for its punishing difficulty alongside its fast and fluid combat. Our own Dan Tack said in his review: "Nioh will break you down (and note this clearly, this is an uncompromising game that does not mind crushing your dreams) before it lifts you up, but you soon crave the thrill of mastering a new weapon or toppling a titanic boss."
Detective Charles Reed travels to the water-logged town of Oakmont looking for answers, but all he finds are hallucinations and the town's particular terror. In the latest trailer for The Sinking City (out June 27 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC) Reed reaches through the fog and the madness.
The trailer not only gives you the unsettling atmosphere of Oakmont, but also a look at some of the puzzle-solving, investigative, underwater, and weapon gameplay.
Even lost souls have their use in Oninaki, Square Enix's action-RPG from Tokyo RPG Factory and Chrono Trigger director Takashi Tokita. The game comes out this summer (PS4, Switch, and PC) and its latest trailer shows off how protagonist Kagachi uses souls as powerful weapons known as Daemons.
Daemons are lost souls that cannot be reincarnated. Kagachi, who is a Watcher ferrying souls to the next world, puts them to work on his behalf in battle. Each one can be used as a different type of weapon (as well as assist Kagachi defensively) and they can be swapped in and out in real time.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has been available for nearly every platform imaginable since its launch in 2013, and now it's coming to Nintendo's latest console. Directed by Josef Fares, the action adventure title tells the story of two brothers going on an emotional fantasy journey.
Exclusive to the Switch version of the game is a new co-op mode, where each player controls one brother with one Joy-Con. In all previous games, the player would control both brothers with each analog stick, an option that also returns for the Switch version. The game will also feature director commentary and a concept-art gallery, both of which were also present in the PS4 and Xbox One versions.
Brothers will run at 30 FPS, with a 720p resolution in handheld mode and 1080p resolution docked. The game has previously been available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS, Andriod, and PC.
The game lands on Nintendo Switch next week, on May 28. The game retails for $14.99, but there's a 10% discount for those who pre-order. For more on Brothers, check out our review for the game, or Fares' subsequent project, A Way Out.
Man of Medan is the first installment of Supermassive's upcoming anthology series, The Dark Pictures. Today the Until Dawn creators released a new trailer for the game, alongside the announcement that Man of Medan releases on August 30.
Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan is filled with a plethora of choices, ranging from simple to intense. But no matter how little the decision seems, there will always be consequences, and the new trailer from Supermassive stresses just how important they are.
For more information on Man of Medan, check out Kim's preview for it here.