Emma Withington reviews The Town of Light…
In present day Italy, you stand before the gates of the ‘Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra’. Abandoned and decrepit, Volterra Asylum looms into view. The Charcot building is imposing, oppressive, and just so happens to be where you were processed…in 1942. Whispers of the past rustle through the trees and echo throughout the seemingly infinite, desolate corridors. Who are you Renée? Who were you?
When we visited the ruins of Volterra Asylum back in April, we spoke of The Town of Light’s purpose as an interactive experience. Not as a game to be ‘enjoyed’ in the traditional sense, but as a journey through the eyes of deeply affected patient Renée. T, which seeks to address the stigma associated with mental illness. Looking toward games which have embraced the first-person adventure experience for similar purposes, we have been taken on a beautiful journey through a young boy’s grief in The Unfinished Swan, a tale of forbidden love and fractured families in Gone Home, and now in The Town of Light the perspective of madness and reality. A psychological horror that doesn’t need jump scares or tangible monsters to make your soul tremble at the horrifying, historic reality within Volterra Asylum.
With this in mind you can be aware of what to expect from The Town of Light. An interactive experience, a story of a deeply visceral nature, and comes with a disclaimer – for good reason. Now that you are suitably prepared, let’s have a look at what the PS4 re-release of The Town of Light has to offer.
The Town of Light is a beautifully tragic tale of discovery for Renée, a character driven experience of suffering and horror of the reality and treatment of mental health. As you uncover fragments of the past through documents and objects – from your precious doll Charlotte to EST (Electric Shock Therapy) equipment – hopelessness and despair take hold. ‘The more you know, the more you don’t know’, as the saying goes, and while there’s a clear chain of events in The Town of Light, it’s up to you to draw your own conclusions as to what really happened in between. Are any of her memories accurate? Do the documents corroborate? Is the hospital staff dispassionate, or helping in the only way they know how? It’s wildly ambiguous nature is set to hold you within the grasp of the mind of the mentally ill – the struggle, pain, and desperation to understand why, why and how did this all happen? While occasional choice based options affect the perspective of selective memories within The Town of Light, allowing you to rationalise, be indignant, or hesitant toward certain events and discovered information, your fate remains unchanged. Don’t expect a variety of endings, in a story which, quite frankly, wouldn’t benefit from any ending other than the one set.
The Town of Light has recreated Volterra Asylum in chillingly accurate detail, and the atmosphere created by the team at LKA.it, visually and aurally is one of the Town of Light’s biggest virtues, capturing the frightening allure of the asylum. Graphical up-scaling was an aspect of re-releasing The Town of Light and there are some improvements in that regard – not that it needed a great deal of work – appearing a little sharper and less reliant on soft focus, with fog eliminating draw distance. However, there are some very minor rendering issues on occasion, not jarring enough to remove you from the experience, but may need to be addressed if The Town of Light takes the plunge into VR on PS4. An area of The Town of Light which has been criticised in its PC past is the voice acting. Now, from what we heard during our playthrough of the PS4 re-release, this is no longer an issue. The intonations within Renée’s voice provide a disturbing contrast between distressed childlike innocence and wretched maturity – reflecting her identifiable personalities born of time in the institution.
As you wander within Volterra Asylum, it is a shame that exploring can be a little stilted and restrictive, particularly as the scale and attention to detail in the asylum is disturbingly compelling. That being said, narratively, it does makes sense – even if it negates the exploration aspect to an extent. The idea of becoming trapped within, restrained like Renée, as you begin your journey – the slow reveal introducing you to the horrors encased within the flayed walls. As your cracked mind begins to flake, you are dragged deeper and deeper, as things become progressively more grim.
If you are after a puzzle game, this isn’t it. While there are puzzle elements The Town of Light doesn’t make these particularly taxing. The focus is clearly within the storytelling, rather than particularly engaging game mechanics, as there is little consequential environmental interaction outside of the narrative. You can spend as long as you like examining bottles and coin, but once you’ve picked up the same object a few times in varying locations, this can seem a little underdeveloped or superfluous after a while and detract from the strength of The Town of Light‘s harrowingly raw story.
While The Town of Light doesn’t present particularly unique or compelling ‘game’ mechanics, as exhibited in titles such as The Unfinished Swan, LKA.it’s first foray is commendable. The time, research, and intimate detail of an area of our history that needs its time in the light – as it were – is abundantly clear throughout. If you’re after a well-rounded exploration game in the vein of Myst or Gone Home, this isn’t it, but we stand by what we said in April: ‘To say you will ‘enjoy’ The Town of Light is incorrect, and feels wrong to say in any case, but by utilising the ‘game‘ as a storytelling device The Town of Light will affect you, immerse you, and capture you for a time – a character driven experience, but a game? No, not exactly. The Town of Light represents a terrifying reality – documenting a harrowing part of human history, none of which is a game to those who suffered. This is an important interactive experience, one which will place you in Volterra’s asylum and depict the horrors of suffering with mental illness, like no other interactive media out there.’
The Town of Light will suck you in, swallow you whole, and spit you out again. It is deeply affecting and a game that you will not be able to put down, whether you want to or not.
Replayability factor: Low/Medium (In this case, player dependant – the faint hearted may find that once is enough!)
Game Mastery level (Trophies): Easy (requires a few chapter revisits)
+ Unique and compelling story
+ Stunning recreation of the asylum/attention to detail
+ Commendable approach to subject matter
– Some texture loading mishaps (mainly exterior)
– Lack of fully engaging mechanics
– Restrictive, linear gameplay/Could benefit from a ‘Free Play’ mode on completion of the story.
Emma Withington – Follow me on Twitter