The Town of Light (Xbox One Review)
The Town of Light is a different type of horror game. Rather than focusing on the classic jump scare or a universal generic trope of a villain like a zombie or demon to get across the sense of terror, instead this horror is very real, and to many something they cannot escape: Mental illness.
Taking presence from real life events and crafting a story around the theme of mental illness, honing in on the tough reality that women had to face if they were correctly or incorrectly diagnosed with any form of mental illness in the early 20th century.
Playing as a young woman named Renée who is reliving the events of her time at Volterra. A relatively small mental hospital for women in Tuscany, Italy. At least that’s what we are lead to believe. As the player ventures round the grounds of Volterra, listening to Renée forcefully try to recollect the happenings behind the walls of the mental hospital, we are introduced to characters and inanimate objects that Renée refers to as if they had a consciousness. People she met during her “incarceration” as she was forced to undergo experimental therapy that was meant to “improve” her condition. Renée’s Memories fragment and her vision of reality shifts, forcing Renée to continually question what is real and what isn’t: What is “Reality”?
And that is ultimately your goal as Renée. Piece together what scraps you can from documents left lying about this now forlorn institute. With excerpts dating between the early 1930 to late 1940’s, all detailing the psychiatric developments of patients and ultimate failure to be “cured”; giving the player an in-depth look of patient’s lives. And as the player progresses within Volterra they are occasionally met with some very artistic yet horrifying imagery and cutscenes. Consisting mostly of abstract drawings that try to intercept (the best they can) differing forms of mental disorders; depression, anxiety, personality disorders. Players even get a glimpse of medical textbooks showing various medical procedures, some rather vivid. The most notable scenes however, are Renée’s memory fragments we get to experience. Pen and ink style drawings brought to life, creating scenes of dark imagery that animates the characters mental illness within. Darkened shadowy hands grasping at you, monstrous faces and silhouettes of people unrecognisable illustrate the inner turmoil of mental illness.
Unfortunately, that’s all The Town of Light has going for it. Its captivating storytelling about the poorly run mental institutes during the second world war. The Town of Light’s gameplay, graphics and lasting appeal are dull, boring and short lived at best. The Town of Light is very much a Walking Simulator as you run around Volterra uncovering the story the developer has laid out for them. But its simple premise of move and click is dull from the offset as there is very little in the way for the player to do otherwise. No puzzles to solve, very little places to explore and often having to backtrack through corridors and rooms that all look alike eventually wane on The Town of Light’s initial intrigue and file it down to nothing more than a bland stroll through a now defunct mental hospital. There are a few instances of narrative choice, choosing an option will push you down a particular path to Renée’s self discovery, giving a more expansive branching narrative that will lead eventually to the same conclusion.
Even with the gameplay failing to captivate as it does, that downfall also extends to The Town of Lights graphical prowess. With a drab brown colouring most of the environments and a strange unevenness in some of its lighting and brightness settings – tinkering with in-game options doesn’t help – your left with a rather dreary set of scenery that is oddly too bright.
It’s never easy to tackle a subject matter that has very little awareness around. Most people live their lives unbeknownst to how mental illness affects those around us and what it is they go through. Even though The Town of Light fails at any sense of creating a compelling gameplay experience, it does do a fantastic job of illustrating the difficulties individuals face with metal health problems, even if it does focus on the past and how such cases were handle. Its short lived 1-2 hour story begs for more incentive to explore it rather than a simple walk and click gameplay loop. The Town of Light I feel would be much more suited to an animated short film than that of a videogame but if you do decide to venture into The Town of Light, this is one story definitely worth taking in.