Taking a trip down memory lane isn’t great if, like Renée, you were forcibly sectioned.
The Town of Light follows the story of Renee, a young woman returning to the asylum where she had been unjustly committed at the age of 16. 1938’s mental care wasn’t the same as the modern day, and the game -which was developed as a psychological horror- follows her path through the horrendous asylum where tests and experiments had been performed on her to cure a mental illness which was never present. She has returned to her nightmare to explore the asylum and in turn relive her traumatic past. Or at least that’s how it feels anyway.
I have a soft spot for horror titles, although I shy away from games such as Silent Hill, or Resident Evil, not because they’re scary, but because they have to have elements that jump out at you, or they have scenes filled with grotesque dismemberments and buckets of gore. Shock value basically. I lean more towards games that focus on the atmospherical tension of the world around you, titles such as, Amnesia, or Pineview Drive. The Town of Light is a game in which there is nothing that jumps out from around a corner, but you have an uneasy sense that there is someone lurking.
Dann managed to get his hands on the game while it was at EGX Rezzed 2017 earlier this year, you can read his hands on experience here
Before we begin, it’s worth pointing out that the title title was always built with VR in mind, while the game didn’t initially launch on Steam until the 26th of February 2016, there were Steam Discussions by the developers from the 1st of February 2016 talking about VR being a work in progress. VR was also present during their Indiegogo campaign, the project failed to meet their €30,000 goal and instead only raised €2,469. The game was still developed despite this failing. It’s also worth pointing out that the title is being released both digitally and physically on Xbox One and PS4 this June on the 6th with the help of Wired Productions publishing the title, and THQ Nordic distributing it.
So, let’s get into it. While the title is arriving on PS4 and Xbox One, the PC version is also getting an enhanced edition, which is the build that I’ll be playing through this review. Weirdly the title doesn’t state that it is an enhanced edition which could just cause confusion when people go looking for a review for the recent build and find themselves reading an old review from last year. So to be clear, this review is for the 2017 remastered, The Town of Light. It’s all inspired by real events and locations – specifically the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra asylum, a terrible blight on an otherwise marvellous Italian region, while the majority of the game is set indoors, you get brief moments when passing windows, and cracks through the walls where you get to see the surrounding location spanning off into the distance.
The Town of Light begins by introducing the player to the voiceover of Renée, the tired, cracking voice of a traumatised woman, clearly comes through in the voice acting, but the intro dialogue isn’t anything spectacular, in all honesty it felt like someone read a script without paying attention to conveying feeling. After the introduction the voiceover work does become stronger, but in terms of really gripping the player in those first few minutes, I grew bored quickly.
Fading in, you begin outside an overgrown environment, a park to your left, a ruined, derelict building sits just in front of you with a gate to the right. This is really a tutorial grounds disguised as part of the experience. You get to hop on the park’s features, such as the slide, and the roundabout, then you get to venture through the building and become familiar with the controls and the way the game works, which in a walking simulator there isn’t that much to learn really. Once ready and by going on instinct, you open the gate and begin your ascent up the hill, and there it sits before you, a towering, derelict asylum. Beaten and worn on the outside, hugged by overgrown foliage, and somehow intimidating.
Once inside the building, you get to wander around areas, picking up notes and in an attempt to flick a switch you’re greeted with a hint to go and turn the electricity on, and thus introduces you to the hint system. As you wander around you’re given hints as to what you’re looking for or meant to be doing in the form of Renee’s voiceover. Firstly you find yourself trying to find her trusty doll from her childhood, which we quickly come to realise that this doll was her safety blanket as a child, a fact learnt through collectable diary entries throughout the game. These diary entries are collected in a non-chronological order and focuses on Renee’s life before she was admitted to the asylum.
You’ll soon come to realise that you’re confined to certain areas of the building to start with, firstly you’re unable to open doors leading to other areas because Renee wants to find her doll, but as you progress, doors are just locked, unlocking only when the next part of the narrative has been achieved. Once this happens doors will mysteriously unlock or swing open by themselves. You’re following a linear narrative, but the more you progress the more the building opens up to you and that’s where it can get a bit confusing with where to travel to.
After finding the doll, Renée seems to then become sidetracked, wandering around the building recalling moments from her past when she was trapped there. Now, interestingly, the game starts to become more artistic and clever in the way it puts Renée’s mindset onto you as a player, making you more connected to the character. As you progress there’s one corridor that suddenly transforms into a longer corridor, doors automatically begin to close as you head straight on, walls bend into surreal corridors, and this part in particular was a very clever way of showing how Renée must be feeling having to walk towards a room she had once locked out of her mind, and now the daunting approach to bring it all back has brought all the anxiety swelling back.
The story begins to take darker turns, with us finding out that Renée was raped frequently, and then she was forced to take part in tests and suffered terrible abuse. The game flashes these flits of memory to the player in two ways. They will either allow the player to take control of past Renée, in a black and white, disorientated viewpoint, or they’re shown through hand drawn stills featuring some moving elements. You’ll find yourself at some points being able to control Renee’s head, but unable to control her body, instead nurses and doctors move you about and you’re unable to move, giving a horrible understanding on what it must be like to just be carted about.
To further strengthen the fact that Renée has mental troubles, we’re introduced to a different voiceover, a split personality communicating to herself. At this point, the game begins to offer dialogue options allowing you to create some multiple choices, which in turn leads to how the game plays out. When making these choices you’re shown an icon overlay of a character facing a group of people, and some choices result in the character facing away from a group of people with a red cross over them. I haven’t seen an explanation for this within the game, but from what I can tell it’s determining how your story is playing out and the path you’re taking. The one icon I imagine symbolises Renee becoming more open, and confident, and then the other shows her withdrawing back into herself. I could be wrong on this, but as I said, I can’t find any sources on what it actually means and it’s a very weird, unexplained feature.
As the game comes closer to the end it becomes a more surreal journey. I am going to talk spoilers here, so if you would rather skip the spoilers, then I suggest going to the next paragraph. STARTING NOW. The journey to the end seemed to lead me down a path of attempted suicide, wandering around an abstract world where I hunt down my childhood drawings. You’re then transported about unwillingly, with you being able to do nothing but move the camera, but then after gaining consciousness yet again, you find yourself back within a destroyed version of the asylum where you come across an eyeless corpse ina coffin, the attempted hanging, and then you find yourself fading out again and then being locked to a bed after a short educational fact about the Lobotomy experiments that were carried out within the asylum, but as you gain consciousness again, you find yourself surrounded by doctors, then you’re forced to watch the operation carried out on Renee. I actually do mean forced. There is no way to skip the scene, no way to open a menu and quit. The scene was quite disturbing, thankfully I’m not squeamish, but those who could be affected by such scenes should be given the option to skip out, although it felt like the developer was trying to convey a message to us about just turning a blind eye to things that we deem disturbing.
Graphically The Town of Light is stunning. While the textures aren’t wonderful up close, the overall feel to the environments is certainly creepy and adds to the uneasy atmosphere you experience throughout. You’re also equipped with a flashlight that has a never ending battery life, but it really isn’t that handy as the game in general is fairly bright anyway with it being set in the day. I believe I only found myself using it in a few rooms that were of no importance to the story. The character models in the interactive flashback scenes are a little bit basic and plastic, and animations come across as rather stiff. I’m a huge fan of the artwork focused cutscenes, with hand drawn elements looking rather dark and dirty and almost like segments from a graphic novel. There are some graphical niggles that bother me, but nothing major, such as shadows not being reactive to the player, you pass through the light with no shadow, and another thing, you occasionally see Renée’s hands, and at some points in cutscenes you see her legs and body, but during your venturing around the asylum there’s no legs.
Musically, gentle tracks will aid the emotional feeling that Renée is feeling, and sometimes, but not all the time, soundtracks can overpower the dialogue, to which all I can say about that is, thank god there’s an option for subtitles. Dialogue wise, the voice acting is fantastic, with the voiceover sounding exactly like a broken, tired, destroyed being telling a story. The quavering of words, the sharp intakes of breath between recalling difficult memories, the gentle, soft worry over her doll. It’s very wonderfully done and while it doesn’t make me feel like I am Renée, it makes me feel like she’s talking to me, as if I’m the voice in her head. There are moments where what the voiceover is saying doesn’t match what text is being displayed on the screen, but this is just a case of a few words being reworded. The sound effects are crisp, and very messy in a good way, making the feeling of going insane even more believable, with mutterings being echoed over and over, and static resonating in the background.
There was a moment in the game where I was unable to skip the dialogue for a certain medical document. Now, medical documents provide strong story elements, but this one cutscene went on for nearly fifteen minutes. It’s not just the unskippable dialogue that feels tiresome, it’s the walking too which feels like it could be too quick sometimes, and then other times it feels like it isn’t quick enough, but there isn’t any way of sprinting or walking slower.
I feel like The Town of Light has achieved in telling a story in an interactive way by invoking a fear of something that isn’t there except a strong atmosphere that helps guide the story’s narrative. Throughout the game you feel as if you’ve returned back to the building, but doors unlock on their own accord, and swing open and it was in these moments where it always felt like they were part of a dream world being formed around the mind. The ending is badly explained and seems to end on a message, but it’s not really clear what that message is, unless of course the developer was planning on players taking away their own interpretation on the message.