Publisher: Wired Productions
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Copy obtained via GameFly
The Town of Light is a first-person narrative game that deals with mental illness and how it was poorly treated in a psychiatric hospital in Tuscany. The hospital in question is the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real-world location that existed from 1888 through 1978. Although set in a real location, the main character is fictitious and used as a vessel to explore the harsh and unusual treatments delivered to the patients.
You play as Renee, a woman who has been a patient in Volterra since she was a teenager. The game begins with you standing outside in the grounds of the hospital, completely alone. The building is crumbling, overgrown, and full of dark memories. Renee is unclear on certain events that transpired here in the past, so you’re tasked with exploring the abandoned hospital in search of answers.
Despite looking dated visually (it looks like a last-gen title), the world is still impressive to behold. Developer LKA went and visited the real hospital and took several notes and pictures to painstakingly recreate it for players to explore. There’s no jump scares or supernatural entities in this game, so it relies heavily on its oppressive atmosphere to creep up on players. There’s something undeniably creepy about the plaster chipping off the walls, or the barred up windows and broken equipment that makes the game feel unnerving. The fact that it’s a full recreation of a real location also adds to the experience.
The main focus of the game is exploring the abandoned hospital for clues. What happened to the hospital? What atrocities took place in its walls? And why were they allowed to go on for as long as they did? Sadly, the game is more concerned with asking these questions than answering them. Perhaps it’s done to simulate the mind of a mentally unstable person, but the majority of the information you learn contradicts each other, doesn’t make logical sense, and is more confusing than revelatory.
Taking the confusion further, there’s moments in the game where you’ll come across patient files. Reading these files help expand on the story, but they also initiate conversations between Renee and a mysterious second voice. You’re given a selection of dialogue choices to choose from, which is a nice touch, but the choices you make can drastically change the outcome of the story. Unfortunately, the majority of the outcomes are extremely outlandish and it’s not worth playing through the game multiple times to experience all of them. However, the real disappointment here is the second voice which Renee converses with. It’s set up as another mystery for you to solve, but it’s never truly explained.
As you progress through the game, you unlock gorgeous hand-drawn animations that serve to fill in some of the gaps. However, despite being incredibly well drawn, they’re never entertaining to watch. These animations depict the torture and horror Renee and other patients faced on a daily basis, often leading to scenes that are incredibly difficult to watch. The game doesn’t stray from depicting these atrocities, making this one of the most uncomfortable games in recent memory. Electroshock therapy, overly aggressive physical restraint, beatings, and sexual abuse abound, resulting in an experience that’s going to be very difficult for some to sit through.
This is also where the most interesting discussion on The Town of Light comes into play. A large portion of the game focuses on the way the staff of the hospital took advantage of the patients. It’s almost a never ending stream of grotesque abuse of power, but where the discussion really comes in is the way the patients are portrayed. With the exception of Renee and a friend she makes while in the hospital, the hundreds of other patients are nothing more than nameless faces for the staff to abuse and elicit a response from the player. On one hand, it comes off as complete shock value. However, there’s also the argument that this was done to realistically depict the complete incompetence of the staff and how they viewed the patients as objects instead of people.
It’s also worth noting that as a game billed as something to explore and discuss mental illness, it focuses more on the abuse from the people in power than the actual mental illnesses the patients suffer from. The game serves as a stark reminder of how far mental health treatment has come, but it comes at the price of not fully accomplishing what it set out to do.
Even from a technical standpoint, the game is plagued with issues. Textures pop in and out constantly, pieces of the environment completely disappear if you look at them the wrong way, there’s very little audio aside from the voices, music, and footsteps of the character, and the game suffers from load times that legitimately take 40 seconds to a full a minute.
It’s a shame that The Town of Light is plagued with so many thematic, story, and technical issues, because there’s a lot of potential underneath the surface. While it fumbles in the way it explores the actual inner workings of mental health, it serves as a terrifying look into a dark place of history that many people aren’t aware of. It’s just unfortunate that it misses the mark throughout the majority of the experience.
– Zack Burrows