Well, here I am…I’ve made the poor life choice of playing The Town of Light in the dead of night and here I am, utterly dejected and deeply disturbed. The debut title by Italian developer LKA with whom we’ve chatted before sells itself as a psychological horror but takes a different approach to the genre than most contenders by doing away with scare chords and jump scares. No, the only thing The Town of Light uses (and really only ever needs) in order to terrify is reality.
The Town of Light: Windows PC [Reviewed]
Release Date: 26 February 2016
Price: 18,99€ [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Developer/Publisher]
The Town of Light or lack thereof
The game is set in Tuscany: a beautiful region in Italy known for its gorgeous green hills and vineyards, for Florence and Pisa and for the birth of the Italian Renaissance. I have fond memories of my time spent there. Or rather, had, because The Town of Light took me on a very real journey, through the very real ruins of the very real Volterra Asylum. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the dismal history of mental healthcare, you’ve probably seen it covered in the media quite extensively. Due to a lack of understanding exacerbated by underfunding and understaffing most of our mental health institutions treated their patients terribly even as late as half a century ago and this is overtly spelled out in The Town of Light.
Our protagonist is somewhat abstract and could very well be a player self-insert. We navigate the ruins of the old sanatorium guided by the disembodied voice of former inmate Renèe: a girl committed to the institution at the age of 16. The purpose of the game is to walk through the rough timeline of her internment and relive some of the events that transpired, piecing together her fate. The game is linear and new areas are unlocked by triggering certain cutscenes or events. It falls neatly into the category of “Walking Simulator” since environment interaction is minimal and puzzles are few and bare-bones.
There is a lot of attention to detail in the environment design. A lot of the asylum has fallen into disrepair, graffiti covers the walls, the furniture is worn and rust is taking its toll. And while the grounds are overgrown and the sanatorium is effectively a ruin, there are parts of it that have scaffolding and cement bags thrown around, showing that the world has moved on and its dark past will soon be forgotten. It’s a shame, really, that the engine doesn’t do the faithful recreation of the building justice. While there are some well put together scenes, especially the outdoor sun-lit environments, most of the interiors suffer from poor lighting and sub-par polish. There is an unpleasant grime in the game world and the “camera lens” seems inexplicably dirty all the time. Sadly, it does not make the game feel atmospheric, but rather cheap. The artificial light effects are weak as your flashlight is all but pointless in illuminating the obscure rooms and flicking a light switch barely does anything but change the texture on a fluorescent tube. It seems like the developers wanted to go for photo-realism and suffered, as a result, because of the limited budget. A more stylized approach would have dulled the tone somewhat, but it might have made for a more aesthetically-pleasing experience.
It fares better on the audio front with some fine atmospheric music and sound effects, as well as the acoustics. During the flashback and dementia sequences there’s some utterly chilling stuff going on and there are corridors where the utter lack of sound is just nerve-wracking. If only the voice acting were up to the task as well, it would be great. Don’t get me wrong, the voices and narration are fine, but they don’t stick with you in any way after the fact. The writing has a similar problem. Now before I go into this, let me say that both the writing and the voice acting’s quality could both be chaked up to the localization. The game’s primary language is Italian and there are some small spelling and grammatical errors here and there in the English text. The most glaring aspect, however, is how the main character talks about herself, leaping back and forth between the first and third person. This may be an effect of her troubled mind but the presence of the other small translation mishaps didn’t help a lot in clearing it up.
The writing is not dreadful or even amateur, but it’s definitely not stellar either, it just does the most basic job of recounting events. The game’s strongest point, however, are definitely the atmosphere and the environmental storytelling. The best parts of the game’s narrative are told through asset placement, wordless flashbacks or pencil-drawn memory sequences. I say “best” but I use the term loosely because holy shit is The Town of Light and ordeal to play through. I know that sounds like an indictment of the game, but it really isn’t. It’s dreary, bleak and utterly unsettling.
For all its pretense of being a horror game it’s not particularly scary, but by God if it isn’t tense. All the way through it had given me no reason to believe that it was going to do anything to me and yet I’ve spent the entire game feeling incredibly uneasy. I’m not particularly squeamish. I shrug off most scary films, I’ve played through Until Dawn and flinched exactly once, I’m on the last leg of the Bloodborne DLC like it ain’t no thing and yet The Town of Light managed to wrack my nerves something fierce. And it’s not even in how every task you’re given is 99% build-up and anticipation as you walk down long decrepit corridors, but it’s the adult themes it has you face. I won’t go into any sort of detail, I’ll just say this: I’d give something like Postal or Manhunt to a ten year-old to play and not worry about it at all. I wouldn’t let a child touch The Town of Light if it killed me.
The game is not gory or even visually explicit in any sort of way. It tries to paint the world in shades of grey and explain the tragic treatment of mental patients without demonizing an overwhelmed healthcare system, and yet on occasion it goes into places so dark in its exploration of the human mind and our baser nature that I found it difficult to push through. I’ve said in the beginning of this review that the game’s horror stems from reality and I think that’s the root of why it had such an impact on me. These are very real events that used to routinely take place. We’re not talking about demonic posession, slashers, eldritch horrors or ScareDevils. These are atrocities that took place under the guise of caring for our weaker fellow man. They’re things so closely removed from our everyday lives that suspension of disbelief is not even required in order to imagine them. It didn’t help that The Town of Light chose not to end on a happy note. There are some choices to make in piecing your memory together that while not doing a lot to change the ending, they do change the way the events you remember are contextualized. A very faint silver lining.
While it has its issues and bears the hallmark of an inexperienced studio in terms of technical accomplishment and aesthetic polish, The Town of Light is one of the more mature video game experiences out there. It makes no compromises in telling its story and it has a lot of powerful moments. It’s hard to summarize without giving away anything so let me say this: I had an awful time playing The Town of Light and I recommend you do the same.