Review: The Town of Light (2017)

Asylum-based game haunts with fact-based storytelling and occasional signs of struggling performance.

There is a hospital in Tuscany, but “to health” is not its concern. Such is the most dominating irony in the debut title from Italian developer LKA, a Gone Home-like experience where home is anything but a place of comfort. Welcome to Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, an asylum in real life was named “the place of no return” for its never-discharge policy and in The Town of Light is host to a depressing tale that would have maximized its allure had the technical issues been absent.

Note the word “depressing” rather than “horror.” Not at any point does former patient Renee T. – whom players control from a first-person perspective – have to run away from monstrosities in the flesh or in the mind. The rendering of asylums as a playground of shock (and its accompanying inundation in this current gaming generation) comes to a pause here, seeing Renee is willing to revisit her traumatic past to prevent her memories from fading. Also, do note the presences of working light switches in almost every room and an always-visible sunny outdoors. What permeates those long corridors and darkened corners now is sadness. And only that.

Progression comes from either interacting with objects or watching cutscenes come to life through Flaminia Fegarotti’s tender voice-acting. Renee was committed when young, so the beautifully hand-drawn trait of the latter holds more than just exclusive aesthetics value; it emphasises the asylum’s role (or the state of psychiatric care then) as a robber of both lives and goodness. Renee being an amalgam of actual persons and accounts gets this point home with a jolting pluck, that the maltreatment, indifference, gender discrimination and – most disturbingly – sexual abuse at Volterra were crimes with the fortune to be killed by time rather than justice. For these sequences, LKA paints the scenery in monochrome and amplifies the unearthly sounds, building more of Renee’s helplessness on top of what the linearity in design and the deliberate passivity of the overall experience have already done.

Where The Town of Light falters is when it departs from the exploratory DNA. Fleeting occasions of puzzle-solving, say finding warmth for Renee’s doll companion and turning on the boiler for the showers, highlight the game’s clunky mechanics that all the time taking in the atmosphere prior has successfully suppressed. Well, partially – get ready to see trees “bloom” right before Renee’s eyes and frame rates giving up quite often in the outside sections. Remember to situate Renee away from a door’s path while opening one, too, otherwise it must be closed again before being fully opened. Amazingly, there is little backtracking involved (when it does, a careful look at the maps in the corridors will suffice) and objectives are just vague enough (on the PS4, click the touchpad), but the lack of a sprinting option may still test players, especially in the flashbacks where the already-measured walking is now in slow-motion.

But there are delectable reasons to embrace the darkness, of Renee and of the game’s tech, for multiple times in The Town of Light. After reading a key medical record, players are given a range of choices that can direct the story in one of two paths, or one of four near the game’s end. The only collectible here is the eight pages of Renee’s diary that offer more of the character, the innocent-but-disturbing art direction and Fegarotti’s affecting vocal performance.

Writer Luca Dalco and LKA have done a wonderful job with The Town of Light, telling a regrettably true story with insight, respect and mostly efficiency. Sometimes the tech threatens to undo everything though, but attempts to overcome it deserve to be made. What the notorious asylum – and to an extension, the old world’s understanding of mental health – had done to a person is upsetting and soul-draining, but never not worthy of some spotlighting.

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