Town of Light may be a horror game, but not in the traditional sense. Nothing jumps out at you, you’re never in any real danger, and there aren’t even any real supernatural elements. This is a game about the realistic horrors of a real-life asylum, a place where patients were regularly subjected to inhumane treatments, their mental and physical well-being was never a priority. This isn’t Arkham or Mount Massive; it’s much worse. And while Town of Light may be a bit rough around the edges with its visuals, it’s both a disturbing look at real-world events and one of the most sympathetic portrayals of mental illness in video games.
Town of Light follows Renee, a former patient of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real asylum in Italy that housed over 6,000 patients before being shut down. It still stands, abandoned, and looking at real world pictures of it, I can say that Town of Light is is a near-perfect replica. Renee’s journey through the ruins is an emotional one, full of flashbacks to her treatment and confused attempts to recreate the few happy moments she had there.
The story is compelling yet confusing, as one told by someone with a largely untreated mental illness would be. Renee’s journey is by no means a happy one, and in fact contains some incredibly disturbing scenes of the abuse she was subjected to, sometimes in an attempt to cure her, and sometimes just because she couldn’t do anything to defend herself. Renee occasionally slips into hallucinations, but I was pleased to find that the game lacked many of the standard tropes of first-person horror games, like jump scares, obligatory twist endings that make little sense, and standard video game “sanity effects” in place of a more realistic depiction of Renee’s condition.
One trope that sadly does make an appearance is the annoying item adventure game puzzles, which tend to confusingly break the flow of the game. Before you actually get to the real heart of the Town of Light, you have to solve a confusing puzzle involving a doll, which serves little purpose other than to pad out the game. In fact, most of the game’s puzzles are like this, confusing diversions that don’t help the overall narrative. While it’s possible that these were added to keep Town of Light from falling into the dreaded “Walking Simulator” category, they don’t engage the player in the narrative, so they don’t really add much to the overall experience.
Town of Light is a little rough in the visual department as well. While the cutscenes, done in a mostly static, hand-drawn aesthetic, are striking and occasionally shocking, and the monochromatic flashback levels aren’t terrible, and some areas of the modern-day sections are ugly, and not just in the way that a ruined asylum should be. Textures are low resolution and objects are blocky. The strange graffiti murals that adorn the walls, while strange and interesting, look less like they’ve been painted on and more like projections. The visuals aren’t a dealbreaker, but there’s definitely a high contrast between the ruins and the UI, which is really beautifully designed. While some aspects of it are a bit hard to understand at times, like the pseudo-karma system that changes what ending you get, it fits the confusing feel that the game goes for.