June 08, 2017
The Town of Light is a game with its heart in the right place. An account of how the treatment of mental illness was carried out during the 1940s (and presumably some time before that), developer LKA.it's game takes on incredibly dark and disturbing subject matter, then deals with it in a somewhat heavy-handed fashion, repeatedly driving its point home. It's a game that has plenty to say, and indeed, the Italian developer doesn't pull any punches when it comes to showing the horrors of a real-life psychiatric facility during the World War II era, as you revisit the building during the present day.
The game itself is a deliberately slow-paced first-person experience; a fairly shoddy, story-driven walking simulator that's plagued by technical issues that affect the frame rate, draw distance and overall presentation. Town of Light's glacial pace would be perfectly fine too, were it not for the dull procession of medical files and documents you're subjected to, as the game spoon-feeds you exposition in the least entertaining way possible. Branching paths lend some variety, as you choose a defensive mechanism in response to painful memories, picking either the 'me' or the 'others' response as you see fit. This apparently relates to the research of Italian psychiatrist Vittorino Andreoli, and his four mechanisms of defence: rationalism, disassociation, obsession and depression.
While a game as serious as The Town of Light shouldn't really be enjoyable, given the content, it can still be compelling and engaging. Unfortunately, that's often not the case here. There are points at which you're repulsed by the sort of practices that took place in facilities like Volterra (Town of Light's real-world asylum), and in that respect, the game does manage to effectively get its point across. Understanding of mental illness to this day is arguably still falling short, but it was barbaric what went on during what you'd still term recent history. This is communicated time and again during the game's duration, warts and all.
The Town of Light can, as such, prove a thankless slog, trudging through decrepit corridors and exterior scenery where hedges and trees pop in to view. Character models are ugly, PSone-era bad, which bizarrely adds to the game's nightmarish atmosphere and tone. I'm not even sure if this was intentional or not. Slightly crude hand-drawn cut-scenes are suitably twisted and strange too, making the account of 16-year old protagonist Renee all the more unsettling. From the very beginning, you know that this isn't going to have a cheery, upbeat ending. It's genuinely dark.
The commitment to accurately portraying the location is commendable, Town of Light's rendition of the abandoned facility startlingly similar to the actual place itself. Of course, this imbues the game with a perfect sense of place, but practically every room is almost identical, the entire building a stretch of flaking paint, broken tiles and decaying window shutters. It might be realistic, but it's also rather bland. Worse still are the game's concluding chapters, traipsing around a boring limbo inside a primary school, a labyrinthine stretch of passageways that outstay their welcome somewhat. You might have cottoned on by now that there's a lot of snail's pace walking around.
That the trophies reward exploration only serves to protract the chore of slowly drifting through The Town of Light's facility and autumnal hued exteriors, looking for various secrets and collectibles. As a list, at least it encourages you to go beyond the beaten path, but whether you can be bothered to put in the time and effort to do so, is another thing entirely. There's replay value too in unlocking different chapter paths, but again, this hinges on whether you're inclined to go through the game multiple times.
A brave and noble attempt to tackle the tough subject of mental health and the treatment thereof, The Town of Light is a horrifying snapshot of a dark time in history that deserves to be highlighted. Sadly, it doesn't exactly make for the most pleasurable gaming experience. Rather, The Town of Light can be uncomfortable at times, especially once you realise that this is the kind of thing that really happened, and to this day, the Volterra asylum still stands in Tuscany, Italy, as a grim reminder. If, however, you like the idea of taking a macabre voyage through a bleak and terrible time to find out what became of poor Renee, then it might be worth your while checking in with The Town of Light.
Looped screams, freaky noises and solid voice acting. The music too is suitably atmospheric, but by and large the entire soundtrack is pretty forgettable.
Built using Unity, The Town of Light isn't the worst-looking game, but then neither is it the best. Some shoddy textures, frequent pop-in and poor draw distances let the side down.
A slow and repetitive slog through a painstakingly recreated real-life asylum that soon becomes rather dull. There's not really much to do other than casually stroll from place to place, reading reams of text (some of it voiced and unskippable) from bits of paper.
The branching narrative is a nice idea, but it's not exactly presented in the best way. Some puzzles or anything that requires some sort of lateral thinking might have been nice. You'll find maybe one or two things that resemble a puzzle in Town of Light.
Earned for going off-piste and exploring Volterra and its outside surroundings, you'll need to go the extra mile to attain the Platinum. A number of repeat playthroughs are required too. Can you be bothered, though?
An uncompromisingly bleak look back at a time when mental illness was completely, horribly misunderstood, The Town of Light is an interesting psychological horror, of sorts. However, technical shortcomings and repetitious, often dull gameplay makes for an experience that's severely lacking.