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The Town of Light Review

October 26th, 2017 by

tol001Blimey is the Town of Light a tough tale. Set in a 1930’s/40’s mental health institution in Italy that has long since fallen into disarray – the first word I jotted down as I sat down to play it through was “oppressive”. I had seen a few clips and previews to the game and admit that I was intrigued by the promise of an exploration of mental health issues in a horror-cum-narrative first person walk-em-up. That said, I can’t say I’d want to spend any time in The Town of Light. But then that’s probably the whole point.

You play a former inmate of the institution (inmate and not patient…) who revisits it to help fill the gaps in a brutally traumatised mind. The loading screen of two nurses struggling to hold a distressed girl in a straight jacket in a hand-drawn charcoal style seems to promise scares in abundance, but whilst the imagery and narrative in The Town of Light is frequently horrendous, it doesn’t resort to shock tactics to hand out thrills.

TheTownOfLightMansion

Generically then, it’s hard to place TToL. It’s not an outright horror game, despite the bleakness of the setting and obvious horror within the narrative. The fact that these horrors are delivered through flashback and exposition in collectibles creates a distance between the player and the character. It’s a healthy distance considering the difficulties of disassociation, anxiety and amnesia that Renee is experiencing – but it means that it’s hard to fully involve yourself in her story. It also means that the game is a 6-hour long exercise in exposition that is punctuated by walking, simple puzzling, and more walking.

The lack of gameplay means that the whole experience hinges on the story itself – a story which is about as bleak as you will find in gaming right now. For both of those reasons it’s hard to talk about enjoyment or having fun in this context – Crash Bandicoot it is not. To say that the 1930s were not kind to mental health patients would be an understatement. The game does a good job of unpacking the appalling conditions and practices that surrounded mental health issues. Exploring why Renee was consigned to such a bad fate, why she was kept there, and how she eventually left the asylum (no spoilers!) needs to hold your attention, and I must admit I was consistently intrigued enough to find out.

TheTownOfLightInterior

The story takes places in medical records, notes and letters though – and it feels that despite the strong voice acting and scripting – you’re essentially listening to a bunch of audiologs from Bioshock – pouring through the additional info that would otherwise be used to colour a location in which a bigger narrative is occurring. Telling a very intimate story at arms length doesn’t quite land and I couldn’t help but feel this story would have been better told as a film or novel. (On that note, the footage of the real asylum which the game is based on you receive on completion is an eye-opening treat).

There are options to shift the narrative tone as the game progresses with dialogue (or in this case monologue) options that determine the eventual mindset of the protagonist. These are relatively obvious in where they will lead (the nice option vs. the nasty option vs. the really nasty option) but they are also represented by symbols that I couldn’t possibly fathom so tracking “progress” was tough – for me losing the symbols would have been subtler. It seems that the only real benefit of this was to create a Heavy Rain-esque trophy collection that requires four playthroughs (and four endings unlocked) to access.

TheTownOfLightNurses

The person who wants to spend four playthroughs in The Town of Light is much more patient than I am though. And whilst the story is an important one, the bleak presentation, suffocating soundtrack and featherweight gameplay makes it hard to recommend TToL. If you’re a big fan of walking simulators (Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) or want a different kind of horror fix (obligatory creepy doll included) then take the plunge. I’m off to play something with bright colours and a comedy sidekick for a bit…

Midlife Gamer Rating: 5/10     Format:  XboxOne, PS4, Steam   Release Date: Out Now

Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of The Town of Light by the publisher for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 3 days. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.

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