The Town of Light is a very dark place, and there are moments that are tough to watch. I would not say that I “enjoyed” the time I spent with the game, but does that mean I regret playing it? Not at all. Read on to see why this game will be perfect for some and repellent to others.
The Town of Light tells a fictional story in a real place. The Volterra Psychiatric Asylum in Tuscany, Italy housed thousands of patients during its decades of use, before it was shut down in the 1970s. The developers used historical records, documents, and information from former staff and patients as a basis for the game’s story. They also visited the physical location and recreated one of the buildings in the game to ensure accuracy.
The story is about a young girl named Renée, and we follow her while she is institutionalized. Although her story is fictional, the events could and did happen to other patients. We see her being tied to a bed for days. She is abused, and she genuinely struggles with the thoughts inside her own mind, having trouble distinguishing between reality and hallucinations.
I have never seen a game handle mental illness in this way. The story starts around 1938 when she arrives at Volterra, and we see her descent into worsening conditions and a deteriorating state of mind. There is no glee, no joy, and no comic relief. We are shown raw images of her suffering and hear her thoughts, as she also questions her own memories and ideas.
The story is also sympathetic to some of the doctors and nurses, instead of portraying them all as heartless demons there to torment helpless patients. The understaffing and lack of resources, especially during World War II, shows desperate people trying to do the best they can with what they have, even if it led to cruel and, sometimes, horrific consequences.
As you wander through the rooms and halls, you can pick up pages from Renée’s diary. These describe her life outside the institution as seen through her eyes. They are strikingly illustrated and handwritten pages, while a voice-over reads the events. I looked forward to every page I could find.
Exploring the different rooms to find new secrets is great, but I wish I could have moved faster than a brisk walk. This is a bigger problem in the beginning, because the hint system is not in place until you are playing for a while. I liked to explore, but, as someone who could get lost in a one room cabin, it would be nice to be able to move a little faster to my objective, once I figure it where to go.
There are also journals and letters to be found that further describe what is happening inside. The doctors and nurses wrote about her actions, and the letters from outside frame some of the events inside. The whole story is there for you to find if you want to know more.
The only problem is that the text on some of the documents without voice-over was too small for me to read without getting up and moving over to the TV. This happened sporadically, but it was really annoying to play musical chairs to read a death certificate.
The Town of Light is a scary game, not because some monster is going to jump out and grab you, but because the things that happened in the game could have and most likely did happen. Patients died of neglect. Other patients were given awful, substandard care and treated like animals. The world forgot about these women, and they were trapped with no real way to improve.
There are some surgical books that show the muscles underneath the skin and different body parts in several steps of being revealed. These surgical instructions by Ikea have an unreal quality, but my guess is that these types of things were actually inside the hospital and used by the doctors and nurses to operate.
The atmosphere in the game is enormously heavy. For most of the time, you walk through the asylum as it is today, a rotting husk of what it used to be, abandoned and decaying. The voice of Renée will guide you to where you need to go next, and some areas are locked until you complete parts of the story. You have access to a flashlight, and you can interact with doors, windows, and other items.
Some of these trigger quick scenes to show you an event in a particular room. The longer flashbacks show a distorted view of the restored institution and an experience that happened to Renée. You are allowed to make some choices in a few of these instances as well.
The sound in the game is very sparse, and I think this was by design. The few outside areas have some sound, but the inside areas usually only have the sound of your own footsteps. There is very little background music in the game, but the occasional song feels well-chosen.
The absence of noise further emphasizes a feeling of loneliness and isolation as you explore the modern facility as it continues to degrade. It also makes the cacophony in some of the flashbacks stand out that much more. There were a few times I was glad to be back to some silence.
I did have some issues with the graphics. The game is not a visual powerhouse, and this was most prevalent when I went outside. The interiors seemed much better in comparison, but there was a lot of texture pop-in. There was also a weird black square that popped onto the screen occasionally in one area.
Despite the problems and, although it is not for everyone, The Town of Light is a powerful and heartbreaking story about a young woman’s mind and the treatment (or lack of treatment) she received in an asylum. There are no pulled punches in the story, and it may be an experience you only play once. You will have to work a little for that story, but the impactful ending will stick with you long after the credits.
The Town of Light PS4 Review
Although it is not for everyone, The Town of Light is unique. It is a serious game that is deliberate in its storytelling and design choices, and it is purposely looking to provoke an emotional response in the player, as it tells Renée’s story of being confined to an asylum. It has some technical issues and text size issues that can pull you out of the story, but the ending will leave a strong impression on anyone with an ounce of empathy.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a digital code provided by the publisher. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
*Reviewed using a base PS4.