The Town of Light has an intriguing premise that blends a real-life setting with a fictitious personal story. However, do the two combine to create a compelling gameplay experience?
In The Town of Light, you play as Renée, a former resident of a psychiatric hospital who is returning to the building long after it has fallen into disuse. By exploring the crumbling structure, you delve into Renée's past while learning about her stay in the hospital and trying to help her uncover answers about her time there.
One of the most interesting aspects of The Town of Light is that the hospital is based on a real-life location: the Volterra psychiatric hospital in Tuscany, Italy. The institution practised extreme treatments such as electroshock therapy and was known as "the place of no return" due to its low discharge rate. It was closed in 1978 but its ruins still stand today. The hospital here isn't a one-to-one recreation of the real thing but there are some areas that mirror their real-world counterparts very closely as evident in a live-action video that you unlock after beating the game. This gives The Town of Light an extra level of authenticity and intrigue that would otherwise be absent if its backdrop was purely fictitious.
However, the immersion is limited somewhat by the poor graphics which look decidedly outdated in 2017. This is a shame because seeing as first-person adventures (or "walking sims" if you prefer) usually don't contain a great deal of gameplay, they're often left dependent on high quality visuals to draw you into their worlds. Unfortunately, The Town of Light falls short in this department and it also suffers from technical issues such as a low frame rate and a large amount of pop-in.
Even so, The Town of Light's recreation of Volterra is still suitably eerie and unnerving. Its understated, creepy soundtrack and use of some truly disturbing cartoon imagery of distressed inmates make you feel uneasy throughout much of the experience. If it were a horror game with jump scares, it would likely be terrifying but that isn't what The Town of Light is going for. Instead, it wants to tell a story.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with that but the extent to which The Town of Light engages while telling that story is debatable. There are a few problems here and the first is the pacing. It's incredibly slow. You move slowly for one thing (which isn't too surprising in a game like this) but in some flashback sequences, you're reduced to a practical crawl. On other occasions, you're rooted to the spot and forced to watch long, drawn-out cutscenes in which very little happens. Other times, you have to wait while Renée reads out notes she finds with no way to speed them up or opt to just read the text yourself instead of listening to her read it.
The story is pretty confusing as well. Sometimes during Renée's narration, you're given a dialogue option to reply to her with the choices you make affecting the ending. However, a lot of the options appear to make little sense or are unclear as to what they are referring to, leaving you at a loss as to which one to pick. You can argue that's appropriate seeing as the protagonist suffers from mental illness but to me, that feels like a cop-out. It's confusing in a way that feels badly presented rather than intricate by design.
Also, the fact that you're playing as Renée doesn't make a lot of sense. The game is set in 2016 yet Renée was supposedly 23 in 1944 when she was at the asylum which would make her 95 in 2016. If I were being snarky, I might suggest that's why she moves so slowly but in reality, it's just another aspect that doesn't add up. For one thing, she has a young woman's voice in 2016. Maybe it's another thing that's supposed to add confusion or maybe someone just didn't think it through.
Much of the gameplay involves going from room to room as dictated by Renée. One positive thing I can say here is that The Town of Light at least gives you a good idea of where you should be headed most of the time. If you press the touchpad, Renée will essentially tell you where to go next. This avoids a lot of wandering around and keeps the experience moving along. However, there was still one instance where I got stuck and had to resort to a guide.
Conversely, one of the frustrating things about getting around is not only the slowness of your movement but the game's clunkiness even when doing something as simple as opening doors. If you stand too close to one while attempting to open it (which is often unavoidable in the hospital's narrow confines), it hits you and only moves a little way, forcing you to repeatedly press a button to open it. Most doorways have double doors as well, meaning twice the annoyance of having to open each one. This might seem like a minor thing to complain about but when most of your in-game interaction is door-opening, it's something that becomes a repeated irritation.
The Town of Light's setting in a real-world mental asylum was a clever idea but sadly, its poor graphics, mind-numbing pacing and general clunkiness mean that it doesn't take full advantage of its potential.
- + The real-life setting makes things more interesting
- + Fittingly creepy ambience
- + Some genuinely disturbing imagery
- - Very slow-paced and dull
- - Technical issues and poor graphics
- - Slow and cumbersome movement and interactions, even for a walking sim