The Town of Light is a first person narrative-driven adventure tells the story of Renée, a sixteen year old patient in an Italian women only mental hospital. It focuses on why she was admitted, her horrific experiences within the hospital, and if she should’ve even been there to begin with. Was there a conspiracy to keep her locked up, or did she really belong there? You slowly uncover these details as you progress, with The Town of Light also offering plenty of moments for the player to make their own conclusions.
It’s a really interesting take on the whole ‘mental asylum’ theme that’s so common in video games these days. The Town of Light doesn’t try to go out of its way to frighten you by pitting you against hordes of deadly psychopaths, but instead tells the haunting tale of a poor girl and how she found a way to cope within the confines of such a harrowing place. The fact that it’s set in the 1940s makes the whole thing a lot more melancholic – medical procedures and the treatment of patients wasn’t as ethical in those days, so experiencing how things were back then made the whole thing a lot more troubling. It could be pretty powerful stuff at times; it never felt cheap, but instead portrayed events that would’ve actually took place in real life.
You have the tale narrated to you by Renée, though it’s not made clear to you the role that you’re actually taking on. She’ll slowly reel through her memories of the asylum and how she was treated, with you exploring each location as if you were there with her. The story could feel a little convoluted at times though. Whilst I can appreciate that Renée is obviously portrayed as someone who might not have a stable mind, the story could branch off into sheer randomness that could make it a little difficult to follow. The transition between events that occurred was often incredibly sudden too, leaving you with no real conclusion to anything that you might’ve been working through already. Again, this might’ve been intentional, but it left the story feeling a little detached. Given the game’s focus on prioritising its narrative elements, this actually took something away from the overall experience for me.
It’s a shame too, because The Town of Light really has a lot of potential – especially with the branching paths that show up later in the story. You’ll often interact with Renée, giving her answers to questions that she asks you. Your answers will then determine how the story progresses, with there typically being at least two different ways for it to play out after each chapter. It almost adds a Telltale Games vibe to the whole experience, giving players something to return to for a second or even third time to fully understand the entire story. Still, I couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed thanks to how confusing it could all get.
Given that The Town of Light is set in a mental asylum, it’d be easy to assume it’s a fight for your life against countless insane enemies that are out to get you. It’s nothing of the sort though, with it instead offering an easy going experience that sees you exploring the environment and solving simple yet obtuse puzzles. There’s plenty of exploration to do though, with small items to examine littered all over the environment. You’ll find plenty of photos, newspaper cuttings, and documents to look at too, each of which adds a little bit of extra background information to the story.
One thing that actually annoyed me about these items was just how small the text accompanying them was. You have a box next to each item full of tiny text that’s difficult to make out unless you actually lean your head towards the TV to do so. If it’s an item that progresses the narrative then it has a voice over to go with it which is fine, but anything else demands you to get up close to the TV to read it. It’s pretty frustrating and actually put me off investigating every inch of the asylum at times.
At least the asylum and its surroundings were genuinely interesting to explore though. They could be incredibly haunting at times too, especially when an illustration or flashback cutscene would accompany each location that’d show some of the horrendous things that took place there. No matter what I was doing in the game though, I’d always be kept intrigued about the surroundings. Plus, they’d always feel creepy without resorting to jump scare horror tactics – the subtlety of the eeriness in the game’s outside areas in particular was incredibly effective and actually put me on edge, regardless of whether or not there was anything there to actually be frightened of. They just felt… off. It was incredibly unnerving; in a good way, of course.
This unnerving atmosphere is strengthened by the game’s great sound design. The Town of Light doesn’t try throwing scary tunes your way or big bangs, but instead has small subtle noises that make you feel like someone is always there with you. It might be the small sounds of scratching, the subtle movement of pipes, or even footsteps seemingly echoing through the halls; much like the things that go bump in the night, there’s always something creepy to listen out for in the game that makes you FEEL as though someone is always there with you. It’s definitely a game that’s worth playing with headphones on just to fully appreciate it.
Whilst The Town of Light offers a location that’s genuinely creepy to explore, actually doing so could be a bit of a drag thanks to the lack of a run button. You’re always forced to walk at a frustratingly slow pace, something that could be all the more annoying when you’re looking around aimlessly whilst stumped at one of the game’s obtuse puzzles. At one point I was aimlessly looking around for ages to find a place to keep a toy doll warm (you’ll understand when you play the game), only to find out that I needed to put it on a wheelchair first. The obscurity of this was frustrating enough, but doing it whilst walking at slow pace made it feel a lot more annoying. Whilst I can appreciate that running through the asylum might have made the mood feel a little less sombre, it would’ve at least made the overall experience a lot more enjoyable for the player.
Whilst The Town of Light remains an atmospheric experience from start to end thanks to its fantastic yet harrowing location, the narrative elements don’t quite match up in quality. Renée’s tale has a lot of potential to offer an emotional trip through the treatment of mental patients back in the 1940s, but instead feels slightly fragmented and convoluted. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments where it shines and you’ll genuinely feel absorbed by what’s going on, but then it’ll quickly move to another scene that’ll leave you a little baffled.
I wouldn’t say The Town of Light is a bad game by any means, but I was left a little underwhelmed by it. There’s so much potential here thanks to the genuinely disturbing subject matter, but instead The Town of Light feels like just another average ‘walking simulator’ to add to the ever growing selection.
Publisher: Wired Productions
Release Date: 06/06/2017
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC