Like a magician with a deck of cards, Layers of Fear constantly shuffles the room layout when you aren't looking. You'll walk into one room which leads to a dead end, and return through the door to find yourself in an entirely different location. More ingenious tricks follow, rearranging the layout of the same room behind your back, unlocking locked doors as you walk past and letting them creak slowly open. It even alters the arrangement of individual walls as you look at them, making you spin around on the spot like a ballerina in a music box. One of my favourite scenes involved walking into a room that was inverted, with the light-fittings on the floor and the furniture on the ceiling. Yet upon flicking the light-switch beside the door, the room instantly flipped behind me. I enjoyed this one in particular because of how the developers needed to anticipate the player's perspective, and had to get the lighting just right so that I didn't notice the change until I spun around.
It's a powerful system to include in a horror game, as it means you can never fully settle into a rhthym. You can never be sure that the next room will be a "safe" one, as is the case with most horror games. Heck, you can't be sure the next room will be a room at all, especially in the game's later stages. As you might expect, Layers of Fear uses these tricks to create some fantastic scares. I don't want to reveal any of these specifically, but given the game can rearrange an entire room behind your back, imagine what else it might be able to place there, breathing ice into the nape of your neck.
Away from this room-shuffling mechanic, there's isn't a whole lot else to the game. You can pull open doors and drawers by using the mouse, as pioneered by Frictional's Penumbra series. But this system is almost entirely dedicated to those two actions. There's a sprinkling of simplistic puzzles, but the vast majority of Layers of Fear involves walking into a room, waiting for something scary to happen, then moving on.
It's a very short game - no more than a couple of hours - so its spatial manipulation remains engrossing for that duration. But after a while the scares start falling flat. One involving a Victorian child's doll running into a wall caused me to burst out laughing rather than recoil in terror. I enjoyed it so much that I went down the same path multiple times just so I could experience it again. There's also creepy ghost lady who shudders around the game's hallways. She's definitely not funny, and Layers of Fear smartly keeps her at arm's length for a while. Unfortunately, the game still allows her to get in your face too early, at which point all of her potency dissipates. There's only so many times someone can go BLEAUBAGRABLABAGH in your face before you become immune to it.
Generally, the scares come too thick and too fast, and the lack of downtime means you're soon able to anticipate them. Layers of Fear's biggest problem, however, is that its horror doesn't go any deeper than someone going BLEAUBAGRABLABAGH in your face. Its depiction of insanity is trite to say the least. Not that a horror game needs to say anything important or insightful about mental illness to be either effective or justified. But Layers of Fear's portrayal of madness is akin to a bad trip, lacking any form of subtlety or gradient which makes the potential loss of the rational mind such a terrifying prospect.
It doesn't help that the lead voice actor is chewing the scenery like a starving rat, while the script has a weirdly anachronistic tone about it, and fails to provide much insight into the supporting characters before the wackiness begins. The ending almost rescues it, with a moment of warmth and lightness which allows us a glimpse of why the main character's mental decline is so tragic. But then it falls back into the pool of B-movies tropes, and ruins the moment in the process.
In short, Layers of Fear is a ghost train. It's a good ghost train, messing with your perspective in a way that's both unsettling but also compels you to push forward, and filled to the brim with jumpy moments, some of which are genuinely great. But afterwards you'll want to buy some candy-floss and ride the teacups, rather than sit down clasping a warming cup of tea while mulling over what you just witnessed. Recommended as a fun ride with a novel gimmick, but as an experience it's entirely disposable.