The Town of Light is based in a real early twentieth century Italian asylum, and follows the deeply emotional yet fictional story of a mental health sufferer known as Renée. It’s clear from the moment that you boot up the game that the experience wants to be taken serious, made apparent by an explanatory warning screen. On the surface of the game, The Town of Light has the perfect traditional setting for a title that sits in this genre, but instantly knowing that the events are set within real-life surroundings, it’s hard not to be taken aback by the events that unfold.
Sadly, and not too unlike the protagonists mindset, the whole package is confined by its own mechanics, ultimately meaning that it’s unable to truly relay anything worthwhile. This is a walking simulator that has you exploring the ruins of the asylum, and although the visuals, the voice work, and the dialogue is spot on, it’s not held together by decent gameplay. Movement is extremely slow and almost completely linear. The game doesn’t just hold your hand from the moment you pick up control, but it forces you into specific directions and opens up too slowly and gradually.
It’s a shame, because the touching (somewhat) intrusive plot is one that will hit home, pretty damn hard. Gameplay typically consists of steadily moving throughout the bleak asylum, a place that almost looks like it’s about to give way. Crusty paint is hanging from the walls, dirt and rot clings onto every single tile, iron bar windows are covered in rust, floor boards are cracked and broken, and everything between is just as desolate. The developers have done a fine job at representing the asylum, offering up surroundings that perfectly echo the theme of the story. Despite some frame-rate issues and the snail-pace movement, I never had issues with the presentation of the game.
As alluded to, the actual exploration of the asylum is tedious. I don’t have a problem with walking simulators, in fact there’s a few gems on the Xbox One that really stand out (Dear Esther) but it’s massively important regardless as to what story a developer wants to tell, that the gameplay is at least fluid and engaging. I wouldn’t use the term “fun” here, because the in-your-face theme is far from, but it should at least be enjoyable to traverse. You can indeed explore to some slight extent, but there really isn’t anything outside of curiosity that will reward you for seeking out each room and corridor. You can interact with various objects or obtain eight diary entries, but much of this doesn’t feel exciting to pursue, thanks to fact that you move so freakin slow. Even moving a wheelchair feels overly awkward and tough to navigate.
There’s no denying that The Town of Light makes you instantly connect with Renée. You can feel her confusion and pain upon each and every sequence that unfolds. This, ironically, is when the game shines at its brightest. Renée is on a somewhat desperate journey to unravel her memories and try to make sense of what she has been through as a patient of the asylum. The story is explained through narration, which is supplemented via the aforementioned collectables. I wont spoil the story for you, but I will offer up some insight. Many decades ago, mental illness wasn’t as understood as it is today, nor was it respected. Staff were often mean and forceful, patients wildly abused on many fronts, and the practices were barely acceptable by current standards.
The Town of Light showcases the tragedies within, and does so with careful depth and consideration. It really is a touching experience, yet understandably disturbing too. This is further tied together with the inclusion of hand-drawn animations that helps to depict the events of the game. You also have the ability to select certain narrations, and although there doesn’t appear to be any game-changing or story-changing benefits for doing this, it gives you a slight sense of control in a game that’s themed on anything but. The story does eventually become a bit confusing towards the end, but it never really detaches itself completely as a result.
It helps that the whole experience is upheld by some fantastic writing and voice acting, which some may argue to be the saving grace of The Town of Light. I must point out however that Renée’s ordeal lasts just four hours in length, and as touched upon slightly above, it dives into some very dark areas that many other games tend to steer away from. I have to commend the developers for visiting these harsh scenarios with respect. It’s abundantly clear that LKA.it have tread very mindfully and carefully on this sore subject, offering up something that may well not be fun, but captivating instead.
The Town of Light is a bold and daring experience that only tends to push forward some dark meaningful themes. It’s an emotional journey that will touch just about anyone that can respect this game for what it is, and the conclusion is as heart wrenching as a game can come. With that being said, the game is hindered by long loading times, frame rate issues, and the lack of anything to enjoy outside of the four hour plot. This may well be one hell of a powerful (albeit short) story, but as a result of those listed issues, the appeal wears thin before long and can become frustrating to some degree.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.