06th Jun2017

‘The Town of Light’ Review (PS4)

by Matthew Smail

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I have a love/hate relationship with walking simulators at the best of times, but a particular bugbear of mine is when they perform badly, which is almost always on consoles. From Layers of Fear to Firewatch, I’ve played some cracking games that were ruined because of poor console conversions. The Town of Light is firmly in the same camp, featuring physical storytelling about a real life insane asylum called Volterra that resides amid the striking beauty of Tuscan woodland.

Aside from the morbid curiosity that exploring Volterra generates without any need for a more human story, the game features one anyway. We play as a voice inside the head of Renee T, a former inmate at the asylum who returns to seek answers about her mother, her past and her incarceration. Renee’s story is not a pleasant one, and whilst The Town of Light is not an autobiographical tale about a real atrocity, there is no doubt that what Renee experiences also happened to thousands of others during one of the darkest eras in modern medicine.

The game begins like most do in this genre; the player approaches the building that will host them for the next few hours. The imposing sight of Volterra is intended to be jarring for Renee, but the graphics themselves are jarring for the player. I’m assured that The Town of Light looks beautiful on PC, but on a PS4 Slim it is a stuttering, juddering horror. Emerging from a dense area like the woodland that surrounds the asylum and into a clearing usually results in a frame rate drop to single figures, whilst doing the opposite has a similar effect.

The movement speed in The Town Of Light is among the slowest I’ve seen in any game to begin with, and whenever Renee begins one of her monologues, it slows down even more. This is possibly because these narrated thoughts often occur as Renee enters a new area, and maybe the developers use it as a means to curb the abysmal performance hits. Ignoring the technical annoyances, Renee’s movement causes some real gameplay issues. There’s no sprint or fast walk button, and overall, The Town of Light forces a lot of backtracking that becomes increasingly tiresome.

Now, appreciating that this review has begun quite negatively, let’s talk about what The Town of Light does well. Firstly, Volterra itself has been recreated based on the real asylum with painstaking accuracy. Tremendous attention to detail has been spent on the rooms and corridors that make up Volterra, and although the number of rooms featuring upturned beds and not much else is high, it is believable considering the layout of the asylum. I especially liked that modern, post-dereliction features have been included and woven into the mythos of the story – giant snakes and other hideous beasts twist and coil down corridors, whilst bizarre faces peep out from behind the closed doors of dispensaries and electricity cabinets.

Renee’s tale, for all of the horrors it features, is also a triumph. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but needless to say that many of the atrocities we abhor today were simply dismissed in the past. The Town Of Light tells the story of a time and place in history when it was easier to simply lock away so called “crazy” girls like Renee, rather than to investigate the abuses that the world had inflicted upon them.

Whilst Renee’s past and the circumstances of her incarceration appear to stack up as universally awful, her story within the asylum is more balanced – but no less awful. There are clearly doctors and nurses with good intentions, but there are also those of much lower moral standing. Primarily, the story is sensible to focus on the overall system of abuse, and whilst it demonstrates lies, cover ups and withholding of personal documents and effects, it doesn’t make a baddie out of any individual – just the inescapable machine.

There are positives within the gameplay itself, although nothing revolutionary. There are one or two puzzles that were fairly straightforward and enjoyable, but by contrast, all too often the game asks players to collect some piece of junk and take it somewhere else – but you never know where, and often you don’t know why. Whilst these puzzles work near the start of the game because of the applied logic, they are completely bewildering by the end. There are also a couple of tacked on scenes that seem to depict Renee’s descent into madness, but they are fairly clumsy and ineffective.

One thing I really did like in The Town Of Light was the Synopsis menu, which is basically just a way for players to review Renee’s experiences so far. It provides a basic hint about what to do next and a summary of recent conversations at the basic end, but the more interesting features are Renee’s scrapbook and her collection of memories, as well as her medical history. These things together make the story all the more compelling, especially as things change and different perspectives are heard. One shame is that the many, many incidental documents scattered around Volterra never make it into this collection, as that would have added additional replay value for collectors.

On the note of replay value, The Town of Light is one of few walking simulators that I’ve played which actually features multiple paths to the same, fairly inevitable conclusion. Even though some of the differences in each chapter are subtle, they are nonetheless there, and you will need to see all of them to fully conclude Renee’s sad story.

It’s actually quite hard to summarise The Town of Light, because whilst it plays like crap (on PS4) and has a lot of very clunky, poorly thought out puzzles and gameplay decisions, it has a really good story and a really compelling setting. It is wholly, thoroughly horrible, and it ends just as grimly as it begins. You will feel sadness for Renee, and remorse on behalf of the whole human race, however, and if the focus of video games is to illicit an emotional reaction, then The Town of Light is a success. As a game however, it is much less successful.

*** 3/5

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