Reviewed On: PC
Copy supplied free of charge by the publisher for review.
Back in the 30’s not much was known about mental illness, leading to so many sad cases where people were placed into horrible buildings to be cared for, their lives becoming nothing more than a personal hell, forced to live through the years with no freedom and the reality of having to endure things like electro shock therapy. The Town of Light seeks to tell the story of one such person, using a real place as inspiration. This is a game developed by a team clearly devoted to the source material that nevertheless seem to struggle to tell their story.
Renee is the primary character of the narrative, but right from the outset it’s made unclear as to whether you’re playing as her, someone else or her own subconscious. Played entirely in first-person sometimes she’ll speak about Renee as if she is somebody else, and sometimes not. It’s a question that persists throughout the game; was Renee truly mad? Did she actually suffer from depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses, or was she placed in a mental hospital simply for not understanding her place in the world and wound up going mad because of it? it’s quickly established that Renee herself as the ultimate unreliable narrator, a person who may well be telling the truth or that could be reliving events that never happened. Hospital records seemingly offer the most accurate depiction of her, but can they be trusted?
These are the questions that Renee seeks to answer by returning to the building she was once abandoned in. Now an aging ruin Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra was a very real place, home to real patients back in the 30’s where atrocities were committed in the name of science by those who thought themselves to be doing good, and by people seeking to take…certain advantages with those unable to defend themselves. This is a yet another walking simulator, one that aims to tackle fairly tough issues. The fact that it takes place in a building that exists and housed people like Renee, who herself is a fictional creation based upon real people’s lives, lends the game some weight. There are tinges of horror here, but don’t worry; there’s no jump scares or gore and only one mildly creepy doll. No, The Town of Light seeks to instill fear in different ways, never quite managing to succeed yet remaining an intriguing prospect throughout. It’s a game where my opinion swung wildly throughout, the first half of the game dragging and leaving me feeling uninterested before the closing hour flipped everything around and finally began delivering the emotional punches that the rest was lacking.
It’s a genuinely gripping premise for a game, an exploration of a challenging topic that has to be treated with the utmost respect. Sadly the Town of Light struggles at times, and players may find themselves feeling confused at first, even if what the writers intended makes perfect sense. A game such as this relies entirely up the writing and the acting to convey the emotion, to get the player engaged. Earlier I touched upon how it seems as though Renee switches between talking about herself in the first and third persons to show her own splintered mind, but truthfully there were times when even I was left unsure as to whether it wasn’t just some massive translation error. The dialogue in the game is frequently jarring and awkwardly constructed, and the subtitles bring up lots of error in grammar that left me wondering whether Renee was schizophrenic after all, or whether it was the result of the game being translated badly. Other problems contribute to this, such as how even the hint system sometimes seems to refer to Renee as being a completely separate person, or how Renee seems to be speaking to you directly as though you are indeed somebody else, even stating “we” on many occasions.
However, this is absolutely is deliberate, as you’ll discover in the game itself, although it’s arguably not conveyed anywhere near as well as it really needs to be. This split mindscape is best exemplified by sections where you’re given the chance to make choices, opting from a few different lines of text that in essence boil down to siding more with how the hospital saw things and whether they really were just doing their best to treat a difficult patient, or Renee herself, choosing to believe that she didn’t need to be there, that she was ripped from a life simply because she didn’t yet know her place. The hospital, after all, had good people too, and the doctors were mostly just doing the best they could for that period in time. Of course the fact that you play as Renee and view the many things she went through from her perspective skews the game, making it unlikely most players would bother siding with the hospital. Still, different choices affect the branching storyline, so there is a reason to go back through and try choosing some opposite answers.
The sometimes awkward, halting dialogue is acted by someone who struggles to bring the material to life. She’s clearly trying her best and to give credit where it’s due she’s dealing with a heavy subject that demands some pretty extreme acting skills to pull off. Still, as horrible as I sound by saying this she just doesn’t manage to bring the range that’s needed.
A mistake is made by trying to mix some horror into the game, although again sometimes it’s a little unclear as to whether it’s deliberate. You may, for example, find yourself locked in a room where you experience a flashback sequence detailing some of the things that went on in the hospital. Once you emerge from the flashback the doors are swung open and the sound of tiny feet running away is heard while the game forcibly slows your walking speed so you can’t see who the culprit is. This is quite clearly deliberate, echoing Renee’s mental problems but also introducing a light horror element, the sensation that you’re always waiting for something to be lurking. Other times doors will just unlock right in front of you and swing open, leaving you unsure as to whether it was done for creepiness or because of lazy development. Likewise you might come across a wheelchair where the wheel is gently spinning, a classic horror trope. Sometimes it does work, though; walking into a ward and hearing the wailing, screaming and moans of the former inmates lends the abandoned building the atmosphere it needs. The Town of Light manages to maintain a reasonably uneasy feeling through, perfect for the story it’s trying to tell. Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra should not be a comfortable place to explore. Still, the odd attempt at more traditional horror feels stupid, especially since it never pays off. Those tiny feet never lead to anything. This isn’t a horror game, and I was left uncertain as to what the developers were trying to do with that gently spinning wheel. I assume the idea was to make the hospital still feel alive in a way, like a living being itself, but it doesn’t really come across.
I can’t be too harsh, though, as the game is not being marketed as a horror title, despite Steam users stupidly tagging it as such. No, the game advertises itself as a psychological adventure, the Steam page stating, “The only horror you will find in this game is the truth: a blow to the solar plexus, much more intense than any supernatural presence.” It’s a fine claim, but a weak one at times. Although the material the story deals with is heavy and clearly deserving of respect The Town of Light rarely affected me as much as it needed to, or thought it was. In fairness this could be because I’m already familiar with how mental illness, or perceived illness, was handled at that time and the many atrocities that have occurred throughout history in such institutes, but personally I felt the execution was lacking. You amble through corridors using the very slow and deliberate walking pace, occasionally triggering a disjointed flashback typically told in either black and white or using drawings. It’s something I’ve seen hundreds of times now, and the brief sequences lacked the emotional weight they needed because it all felt so…well, random. Again, I see what the developers intended, a harrowing exploration of the hospital where painful memories are triggered, but it struggles to tell its tale well.
Much of this was because I found it difficult to connect to Renee as a person; she has no genuine personality past her own assumed madness, a fact that the writers lean on too often. Splintering the story into disjointed, awkward pieces is a trick that gets massively overused when writing characters that suffer from some form of mental illness, a way for writers to toss together lots of individual scenes that don’t have to connect too much. But who is this girl? She was just sixteen when she was committed, but in the time surely she developed as a person? You’re never given the chance to know that person, rather you’re only ever given the chance to know the brief snippets of madness shown to you.
It isn’t until much later in the game, really its final hour, that it feels like things hit their stride. The writing tightens up and revelations come faster, while a few genuinely beautifully handled sequences leave you reeling and thoughtful. The execution that was lacking earlier in the story comes back from its holiday in Malta and knuckles down. It’s everything that the rest of the game needed to be; impactful, powerful. However, even then players need to accept that The Town of Light doesn’t have a lot to say about its subject. It offers no new insight or opinion of its own, keeping almost everything deliberately vague so that you can take out of the story what you want. For some such deliberate ambiguity is welcomed, a chance to interpret the story and draw from it what they will. For others it will be annoying, a cheap method of getting around having nothing to actually say. The ambiguity continues with the ending that leaves things….shall we say, unclear.
From a gameplay perspective things are kept minimal. Mostly you’ll be opening doors and picking up documents with a very, very basic puzzle thrown in every now and then. There’s no sprint button, which can be almost agonising when you have to traipse back and forth across the hospital, looking for the next section required to trigger the story, which can be difficult to find as the game is crap at directing players unless you hit the tip key. Still, I appreciate the choice to keep players running around the environment like headless chickens, especially since Renee herself presumably isn’t up to doing that kind of thing. That doesn’t mean I forgive one section much later in the game, though, where the already slow walking speed gets slowed down again.
Moving on we have to tackle the final subject of graphics and sound. The Town of Light is actually a rather pretty game at times, the faithful recreation of environment bringing with it a good sense of atmosphere, although it does have a slightly flat, lifeless look. From a purely technical standpoint there’s a lot of areas where you can see a lack of detail and animations are almost nonexistent at times. Even walking feels too smooth, making Renee feel even more detached from the world, which may even be a very deliberate design choice. There are moments when the game looks lovely, and others where it looks quite boring. The sound itself is rather disappointing, many of the audio cues sounding flat, off or just badly inserted into the world.
Performance can be patchy at times. In my experience there seems to be a problem between using V-Sync and my AMD FX-8350 processor. When V-Sync is activated CPU temperatures go through the roof into dangerous territory, but turning it off entirely seems to solve the problem. With that out of the way the game is still prone to sudden drops in framerates when moving through certain areas. Thankfully, though, this is a game where framerate drops don’t affect the experience too much.
In a way I feel horrible being this harsh on a game coming from a brand new team who show genuine passion for the source material, their faithful recreation of the building a prime example of this. What they are attempting to do is entirely admirable, and at times they succeed throughout the 3-hour runtime, especially near the end with a few wonderful sequences and story beats that hit home with a sledgehammer made of feels, finally getting me emotionally engaged in a way that the opening hour couldn’t. It’s an inconsistent experience, then, one where the writing and acting stumble and the execution ranges from poor to great. Ultimately it’s still a game worth playing, though, if you have any sort of interest in the subject material or experiences driven heavily by the narrative.