12 March 1938. Renée, 16 years old, is ripped out of her world, locked up and deprived of everything. Her only fault was that she didn’t know what her place in the world was. “A danger to herself and others and a cause of public scandal” wrote the police headquarters. 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
The Town of Light is a psychological adventure told in the first person. The story is set in Italy in the first half of the 20th Century in a place which really existed and has been meticulously reconstructed. Exploring and interacting with the environment you will relive the history of the main character through her confused viewpoint and on the basis of your choices, the story will develop in different ways.
The above quote is straight from The Town of Light website, and it’s an accurate description of the game. I use this quote because it not only explains what you’re about to see, but it also showcases some of the game’s faults, even if only by accident.
Take a few seconds to read the above picture. This is the first thing you see when the game starts. In case it’s too hard to read, the gist is they’re not kidding when they explain this should be played by adults and the scenarios set up can certainly be considered “disturbing” by plenty of people. The Town of Light definitely earns its adult rating.
When you start the game you’re on the outskirts of the insane asylum compound where the game takes place. Well, you assume you are, anyway. There’s plenty to see in terms of scenery and the real life areas of the Volterra institution are real lookers for sure. You aren’t really given an directive at this point, and you’re free to explore while on your way to the asylum proper. What you’ll find initially are things like a playground, what seems to be a work/recreational shed, and lush plant life all around you. Everything looks pretty, and you can see care was put into how things look. Once you make it up to the hospital and get inside, that doesn’t change. Interiors are beautiful in the aura of sadness the abandoned building represents. Exploring the interiors and seeing where patients had to live can be heartbreaking. Seeing the experiments and treatments they had to endure may almost seem unbelievable at times.
On the flip side, seeing the cramped work environments and what they had to deal with on a non-stop basis from patients, as well as procedures that doctors and nurses had to perform can be upsetting as well. Not only through the environments and graphical fidelity do they tell this story, but also through notes and newspaper articles, medical records and pictures where you see just how hard it was on the people who had to take care of the mentally ill. You almost get the sense that even though they were paid to be there, some, if not most, felt like they were trapped there, too. A debt of respect to both the developers LKA, because you can see clearly they tried to represent both sides, and the people who endured the almost impossible workload (and seemingly always understaffed) while this place was operational.
When you get to story beats or cut scenes, you are treated to a couple of different ways they play out. Sometimes you’ll get a stylized in engine scene, while other times you’ll get hand drawn out pictures/movies like the one above to further the narrative. They work really well, and every time I got one, I felt rewarded and pleased when they were over. Sometimes it’s just a quick still shot, sometimes it’s a major plot point.
Renée’s story is crafted from real life stories that took place here. I’m sure artistic liberties were taken, because of course they should be, but throughout the game you never feel like anything is too exaggerated. That’s likely because not only is everything put together well enough, but also because in your lifetime, you’ve likely either heard about, read about, seen on TV (real or entertainment), or perhaps experienced the situations showcased here. Through all this, you not only get context to the place we’re in, but also how everything was playing out for Renée. And that brings us to some of the game’s shortcomings.
When it comes to the story, as I mentioned, it’s put together well enough, but there are definite missteps here. For starters, the opening is very slow, and I don’t just mean your movement speed (which I will get to soon enough). It doesn’t ramp up as quickly as you’d expect it to. As for who you are, you assume you’re playing as Renée, but half the time the main character uses words or phrases to make you question that. If you didn’t read anything about the game prior to playing (like the quote I used earlier), you’re left to wonder and assume. One moment she’s speaking in first person, the next she’s in 3rd person, speaking about how Renée did this or that and what happened to her because of it. I understand that this was likely a conscious effort to showcase her illnesses, but as a game, when you’re thrown into the start with zero context for anything going on, it’s confusing and disorienting. One minute you think you know what’s going on, the next you get a line of dialogue that throws you off. The problem is that it throws you off in the wrong way.
Speaking of the dialogue, sometimes it’s really good. Sometimes it’s awkward and lacking in its delivery or writing. I understand that you’re someone who has many issues, but it came didn’t come across as an artistic decision and more of effort or translation problems (kind of like how over the top “Japanese” Resident Evil games are that they seem so hokey and out of place to us in America). Not only that, but even the subtitles or documents you find have grammatical errors. Again, maybe some of the documents were artistic choices, and I can reason that out, but the subtitles? That doesn’t make sense in the context presented, even if the person is mentally ill. When a game is so focused on story that it is the main (or only) attraction, any slight dips elsewhere become much more apparent.
Keeping on the subject of the dialogue, a lot of the time, especially starting halfway through the game, when a line is spoken or a scene is playing out, it abruptly stops on the final second or word like someone hit pause on the track just as it was about to finish. At first I dismissed it, but when it kept happening, it got really annoying and distracting. Yes, I had subtitles on, but imagine watching a movie and every final word of a scene was cut off in the audio. That’s what it was like.
Moving around the asylum you come across random items you can pick up and access to look at. Nothing out of the ordinary for this kind of game. Unfortunately, with this mechanic, most of the things you interact with, whether they be newspaper clippings, pictures, or random physical items have no use or reasoning. They’re just there. If they had something important about them, I never found it or figured it out. That watering can was just a watering can I picked up. Sometimes I felt like they wasted their time rendering an item because it offered nothing other than to look at it. And to that end, figuring out what you can and can’t interact with can sometimes be a chore due to the size and look of the reticle on screen to interact with things.
Traversing through the cramped hallways and medical rooms is a chore. At first you don’t notice, you’re taking everything in and trying to get your bearings. However, once that wears off, you start to notice just how slowly you move. This is nothing new to this genre, and it’s a complaint that I fear will continue. Not only is there no run button, but the game has the air of wanting you to explore, so having a movement system that makes doing that an absolute chore is unfortunate. Some sections of the game even slow you to a crawl, with nothing but a long corridor and monotonous sound to focus on. I understand why developers do this, but at the end of the day, would you rather me spend 3-5 hours (the assumed length from the devs) crawling my way through annoyed and/or not experiencing half the game by not exploring, or giving a faster movement speed, cutting that time down but enjoying it more? I may be in the minority here, but I don’t think I am. Besides, no one is going to use the run button unless they want to. Give me the tools to enjoy the game.
The sound direction for the game half the time is great, the other half, it’s confusing. As I said before, if you know nothing about the game other than the bare basics, you won’t know what to expect when you start it. It gives off the vibe of a horror game. This is only true in the sense that horrible things went on in the past and you are about to relive them. You are in no danger at all in the game, but sometimes the sound effects or the musical direction paints a different picture. I felt left waiting for a jump scare that never happened. After a while I tried to get that thought out of my head, but the design in some areas point to that happening. Another disappointing entry for this game.
On to the optimization of the game, I don’t want to use the word “mess”, but it isn’t great, either. I have above the recommended settings for the game, and other recent releases run almost flawlessly compared to this game. Frame rate isn’t constant for most of the game. Sometimes it’s something that doesn’t bother me in the slightest, others, it’s really distracting. There are hiccups many times when anything of significance happens and the load times are long, especially the first one. I don’t always hold this against games, and I’m not trying to say this was such a travesty here, but I know people deal with that stuff in sometimes irrational ways, so I wanted to give that info. Just be prepared for it.
I encountered a bug that impeded my progress for over 2 and a half hours at one point. I needed to go through a gate that was supposed to be unlocked but the game kept telling me it was locked. Reloading and replaying a chapter trying to figure out what I could have done wrong and what I could do differently. Nothing was working and I couldn’t really alter what I was doing, most of the game is too straight forward. – side note, use the hint system, because sometimes you’re going to have absolutely no idea what the game wants you to do otherwise – Finding no one else got this bug, I finally reloaded a chapter before that one and played through again to the gate, and this time, it was open with no problem. It was weird, but it happened.
It’s been communicated that the game is still going to be optimized during and after launch, but I can only comment on the build that I played through that was provided to me. Take that into account when looking into the game, because I’m sure it will eventually run smoother over time. As of this writing, my thoughts stand. If I go back to play through to see other possible endings (and I may, it’s not unheard of with me), I will update here should anything change. However, until that time, I’m not going to misrepresent my findings nor feelings based on that promise.
Throughout the entire story, and just focusing on that, what you experience is pretty draining. Typically in a game like this there is a starting point where you get the point of the journey, the middle is where you suss things out and move towards the end goal, and the ending is fulfilling or satisfying in some way. While I did enjoy the story, again, I want to point that out so it sinks in, that structure is only loosely there. What we get is a story of no hope, remembering awful things, and (at least the ending I received) not much closure or resonance after the fact. You do have some sections where you choose how to interact with certain things, so maybe the story changes radically based off those choices. I can’t say, but the tone I got from my time, was dark and sad almost throughout. Part of me wants to recommend this game to all just based on the subject matter and to see the story presented, but part of me also knows that unless you are hardcore into this kind of game and can let a lot of technical and game play issues slide, you’re going to either give up or be very disappointed by the end. It almost feels like this shouldn’t have been a game, but rather something else.
If you know me, and know me well enough, you’ll know my family has a history of mental illness, and that apple didn’t fall far from the tree, I’m afraid. This type of game is definitely in my wheelhouse. First person narrative-based games are games I love to play. All of those things had me very interested in experiencing The Town of Light because it’s in a style of game I love, and a theme that I can not only relate to, but completely sympathize with, throwing myself in the story and sometimes feel like it is/could be me, albeit not to the extremes that Renée goes through. The story and very well crafted environments are what saved the score from being lower. About a quarter of the way through the experience it started to feel like the game was doing everything it could to stop me from getting through and enjoying it. I want to love this game, but sadly, I just don’t.
The Town of Light is available now on Steam or through the official site for $18.99 (launch discount for limited time at $16.90). A Steam code was provided by the developers for this review. As a side note, I do recommend taking a look online at this location if this kind of thing interests you. I’ll link one article here, but there are plenty more available to you. Seeing pictures and reading some stories, I really felt like I was there playing the game, so that credit goes to LKA. They did a great job modeling out this real life historical hospital.