The Town of Light (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 06.03.2016

Review for The Town of Light on PC

The Town of Light can be thought of as an anti-Hotline Miami. Where the latter was a bombastic, nostalgic descent into giddy psychosis, the former is a dour, lethargic recitation of the horrors of pre-modern psychiatric treatment. While such subject matter is by no means off-limits to videogames, it would require incredible talent to build something engaging out of it while remaining true to life - a talent that developer LKA could not possibly hope to demonstrate. It's Depression Quest all over again; mental illness emulation is a spectacular educational tool, but unless it's paired with something else worthwhile, nobody's going to want to be educated by it.

Protagonist Renée's specific diagnosis is unclear. In fact, naming it would contradict the game's themes. Players are meant to feel lost in their own lack of understanding here, confused by their simulated symptoms as much as Renée is by her real ones. To that end, the plot has a heavily distorted sense of time, jumping back and forth by hours, or even years, at once. Additionally, paths forward unlock seemingly at random, and Renée tends to alternate between referring to herself in first- and third-person terms. This last point could very well be a fault of shoddy translation from the original Italian, as such problems appear quite frequently elsewhere, but it's a stroke of luck if so, because the effect matches the concept perfectly.

Screenshot for The Town of Light on PC

This is one of the least glamorous games ever devised. Where most titles aim to be shiny, streamlined, and accessible, The Town of Light is dirty, blunt, and bare. Events in its plot just happen, beyond the agency of any player or character, and without any hint of fictionalisation. Hallucinations are acknowledged without fanfare, unpunished sexual abuse is a regular occurrence, and the only musical accompaniments to it all are braindead piano chords. Even the climax is just a barebones depiction of a medical procedure.

By the end, you will have forcibly unlearned many standard storytelling tropes, especially the expectation of closure and the association of light with safety and positivity. This last one manifests most explicitly in Renée describing her illness as a light, but also more subtly in the juxtaposition of a gorgeous daytime setting with knowledge of the unspeakable acts that took place there. This knowledge also completely redefines how a game will scare people. The Town of Light is defiantly not a horror game - there is no mortal threat or sense of the uncanny - but it is horrifying nonetheless. The fact that it's essentially a playable documentary of real, senseless, and brutal actions performed by educated people (and, thus, presumably by anyone, given the right circumstances) makes it more unnerving than any jump scare.

Screenshot for The Town of Light on PC

Suffice it to say, as roundly depressing and unpleasant as the themes included are, LKA's effort is quite adept at expressing them. Its problem is that it's so focused on doing so that it forgets to do anything else. Minimal narrative structure and highly interpretable content are powerful tools, but used excessively, they only make a story feel empty and pointless. None of the intrigue established by Renée's inadequately voiced ramblings will be resolved before the credits. Anyone already aware of the horrid conditions of mid-20th Century insane asylums has no reason to play this, because that information is the only takeaway available. Those without such knowledge are better off simply reading about it and sparing themselves the agony of The Town of Light's awful gameplay.

Screenshot for The Town of Light on PC

Said gameplay is a textbook walking simulator. Normally, that term would be put in quotes to show personal disdain for it, but LKA seems to have applied it quite literally. Movement is unbearably slow thanks to the absence of a run button, with a bonus bizarre control quirk that halves the speed of diagonal movement. This pace may amplify the power of certain story moments, but the remaining 95% of the time, it's just a bore. This situation is only exacerbated by the common trap of realistic level design not being conducive to gameplay. Unsurprisingly, the setting - a detailed recreation of a real Italian asylum - is full of useless areas and tedious backtracking.

The backtracking wouldn't be necessary if the game were at all competent at explaining where to go. Its system of unlocking doors and removing obstacles after story moments (regardless of their connection or proximity to those moments), which excels at causing disorientation, is a blight on the action. The intended strategy for progression is to glean directions from verbal clues given by Renée, but such clues are only discernible about a third of the time. The rest of the time, the words are so opaque as to be worthless (which, once again, may be a translation issue), and the remaining objectives simply have no instructions - the previous dialogue essentially ends with "walk around a bit."

Screenshot for The Town of Light on PC

Cubed3 Rating

3/10
Rated 3 out of 10

Bad

The Town of Light is depressing, and not just for the intended reasons. It's painful to see a project with such noble intentions squandered by such a profound misunderstanding of how to effectively utilise them. It is very possible to create an artistic work that deliberately avoids being fun while still keeping its audience engaged. This game gets as far as the first step and then just gives up…

Developer

LKA

Publisher

LKA

Genre

Horror

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  3/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

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