The Town of Light: review

  • Format: PS4 (version reviewed), PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now 
  • Publisher: Wired Productions
  • Developer: LKA.it
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://www.thetownoflight.com/
  • Game code provided by PR

The exact origin of the idiom “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” may be lost to history, but it remains a simple yet effective reference to developing empathy. This is more or less literally what you do in The Town of Light. A role-playing game in the true sense of the phrase, you will here briefly step into the life of Renée, the fictional sixteen year old patient of the very real Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra; the now-abandoned Volterra asylum.

This is closest to the genre that is sometimes dismissed (or celebrated) as “walking simulator”, but making that direct comparison doesn’t do the game justice. Whereas Outlast used the issue of mental illness for cheap and lazy horror, The Town of Light handles it with sensitivity and skill. Unflinching realism is central to the experience. First and foremost, it appears that the asylum itself has, in its current crumbling condition, been recreated with incredible detail (there’s a large amount of images of the location’s exterior and interior to be found online for comparison). It’s a deeply unsettling place, but there are no jump scares or supernatural monsters here. None are needed.

Renée may be fictional, but her condition and her experiences are based on grimly true accounts. She explores the long-abandoned building and its grounds as a woman, old documents and areas that she finds triggering memories. Memories that are almost always traumatic. This is a desperately sad, solemnly human story.

When a tale from the past is told, it will sometimes be via distinctive art and sometimes via interactive or semi-interactive black-and-white sequences. Often, a mixture of the two. You’ll never be quite sure what to expect from the interactive flashbacks; sometimes it’ll be brutally realistic, with Renée restrained and looking on helplessly. Other times things will be surreal, reality warping in unexpected ways. No matter what’s happening or how it’s being expressed, things will never be comfortable or fully explained. In fact as you progress, you’re given reason to question the reality of certain recollections, and even by the game’s end you’ll likely be left with certain questions.

Mental illness and trauma are treated with respect and care here, and that results in confronting issues that mean some people might want to avoid this game entirely. Sex, guilt, paranoia, suicide, abuse, abandonment, and obsession are just some of the subjects presented here with neither warning nor euphemism. Notes and letters, accompanied by thoughtful and carefully judged commentary & narration from Renée (as per the rest of the experience), on occasion allow the player to choose how she will react to revelations or memories. The options presented to you are based on various levels of rationalism and optimism, right down to disturbingly depressed responses verging on suicidal. There’s only one ending, but these moments are no less affecting for it.

There are lots of optional bits and pieces to pick up and examine, but anything not directly related to the story doesn’t really have much to offer. It also would’ve been nice, given that Renée herself is fictional, if we could have had some effect on the events of the story (although there are slightly different paths to take on the way to the end). It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is a rather short game, a single playthrough taking roughly four hours. Despite the short run time, some might find the game a little slow-moving for their tastes; but ultimately, there’s no criticism of the game that stops us recommending it to those who aren’t in danger of having their own personal traumas triggered by the content.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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