Mental illnesses are a touchy subject for a lot of people, but it’s generally agreed that modern therapy has vastly improved compared to what it was in decades past. The history of questionable medical practices is something that content creators look towards and explore in some way. Sometimes the representation of this can be exaggerated and poorly represent the illness, other times we end up with works that end up being visceral and extremely uncomfortable.
The Town of Light is a fictional character’s exploration of the real life ruins of the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum, which was closed in the 1970s by the Italian government, due to reportedly abusive practices from the psychiatric staff. Renee T. is one such patient, and her blurry past is uncovered as she makes her way through the asylum as it operated in the late 1930s-early 1940s. Developed by LKA.it and co-published with Wired Productions, this first-person psychological horror title made its way to PS4 and Xbox One on June 6, 2017 priced at $19.99. The title is also available on PC via Steam, and was enhanced to match the console versions via reworked visuals and a re-dub of the dialogue. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Abandoned and Eerie
Since we’re dealing with some uncomfortable subject matter, this game isn’t for those with weak stomachs…but not in the way most gamers are used to. This is not a blood-and-guts affair, but more of a light being placed on a point in time that is unsettling at worst and murky at best. You spend much of your short playthrough uncovering bits and pieces of Renee’s time in the now run-down Volterra, and through that you’re exposed to violent medical practices that would be considered inhumane by today’s psychiatric standards. Since this is a point in history where such practices are new and not seen as unethical, it does make Renee’s despair that much more understandable.
The cutscenes are worth noting here, as they are where her (admittedly off-kilter) perspective on the situation shines through. Since this is more of a rediscovery of her own memories, plot details are mostly told through journal entries and flashbacks to her time in the asylum. It’s obviously not something that anyone would want to be entrenched in, and the game makes sure you’re aware of that fact. The run-down building is appropriately unsettling via crumbling walls, peeling paint, and strange (but well-drawn) graffiti-like drawings throughout. The latter may very well be a delusion on Renee’s part, but they’re worth noting regardless. Sound design is relatively minimal in actual gameplay, as you can only do so much with walking around a vast empty building.
The game’s major flaw, though, is how much actual gameplay it lacks, even by walking sim standards. Many of these games usually have something that draws you in and compel you to keep playing. The Stanley Parable is a good example here. There’s a lot more to interact with, the dialogue is smart and witty, it revels in messing with the player, and multiple endings give players a reason to replay it numerous times thanks to its brisk pace. I will give the game credit for trying to guide the player through the plot and offering a hint feature, but there really isn’t much to do from a gameplay standpoint.
You’ll find that your main motivation is to move from one cutscene to the next, finding plot-relevant items and occasionally turning knobs or flipping switches. The game does keep you on a short leash, only opening parts of the asylum when you complete such actions. This leads to a bit of trial and error, and ends up being somewhat frustrating even with guidance. Ultimately, there really isn’t all that much to do. Since the focus of the game is its uncomfortable subject matter and Renee’s psychological state, it feels that the actual game portion never really matches up with the story in a way that feels natural.
Shut It Down
I find myself in a strange position with this game. While I found certain aspects of the plot to be a little hammy at points, I found being inside of Renee’s head as she is mistreated to be one of the game’s strengths. However, it really is hampered by the lack of focus on gameplay, and the story suffers as a result. Part of me wonders if this might have worked better as more of a short film or something similar, because the story really is worth looking at. Instead we get a disjointed game that ends up stumbling to deliver what it set out to do, and it is honestly quite a shame.
~ Final Score: 5/10 ~
Review copy provided by LKA.it for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.