The Town Of Light feels like a victim of its own design. While it tells an interesting albeit disturbing story of mental health treatment in the early 1900s, it’s plagued by repetitious gameplay, long load times, and visual issues that hold it back from delivering the impact it strives to deliver.
Based on real accounts from the 1930s and ’40s, The Town of Light focuses on Renee, a young woman who’s suffered from severe mental illness for the majority of her life. Her struggle began with sporadic blackouts as a child and eventually developed into bouts of anxiety and the sounds of strange voices in her head. Pushed over the edge by the horrors of a sexual assault, Renee is callously committed to the real-world Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, an understaffed, overcrowded asylum in the Tuscan town of Volterra, Italy.
You assume control of Renee after the fact; at a time when the asylum has long been abandoned. She’s a somewhat unreliable narrator, failing to recall exactly what occurred during her tenure at the asylum. The vast majority of your time is spent wandering the halls and grounds of the large hospital, piecing together what happened to Renee during her stint. You revisit sites of traumatic events, discover and study pages from her journal, and page through medical records, which offer eye-opening insight into the horrifying, violent ways mentally ill patients were treated nearly a century ago.
While The Town of Light struggles with portraying the ways in which people cope with mental health issues, it at least makes piecing Renee’s story together an interesting process. The twists and turns therein are paced well enough that you’ll remain engaged throughout. Some exposition may be drip-fed to players through found documents and the like, while big story beats are presented as hand-drawn cutscenes. Each method is linked to a different part of Renee’s story, whether it’s recalling the doctors who abused her, the fellow female patient who helped her explore her own sexuality, or the circumstances that led to her hospitalization in the first place.
These moments are carried by solid art direction; letters are detailed and appear to be written by hand. Flipping through Renee’s journal reveals a number of dark and thought-provoking drawings that supplement the anecdote she’s sharing. Despite the generally static presentation, the game’s hand-drawn cutscenes utilize a unique crosshatched, watercolor style. When it comes to the The Town of Light’s tiny details, there’s plenty to admire despite the heavy context that surrounds it.
While the hospital is large, with tons of rooms to explore to find the aforementioned narrative tidbits, the drab and ugly environments do take their toll, and not in a way that reinforces Renee’s tragic story. For the majority of the game, you’ll walk through the same hallways filled with similar-looking rooms looking for scraps of evidence, guided only by vague objectives. This persists until the last third of the game, when you step outside the asylum’s walls–a turn that isn’t as uplifting as it sounds.
At first you’re sent to the asylum’s outer grounds to examine headstones in a graveyard, but you’re then transported into a cognitive labyrinth in Renee’s mind. You’ll walk endlessly, trying in vain to figure out where to go and what to do next. Suddenly and for no explicable reason, you’re sent back into the asylum. Both of these sections are confusingly designed, stretching on far longer than feels necessary. It’s at this stage that The Town of Light stops being an interesting examination of a troubled mind, and becomes a frustrating game that may not be worth completing after all.
At least on Xbox One, all of this is made worse by poor technical performance. There are consistent frame rate issues when you’re exploring outside the asylum, where turning in any direction also results in noticeable screen tearing. Load times are equally off-putting, stretching on for upwards of a minute at a time. This is also the case within menus, where opening up the collectibles screen comes at the cost of about a 30-second wait.
It’s disappointing to see The Town of Light struggle so often, because the story it presents is both harrowing and captivating at times. While there’s an interesting narrative to be found in its world, the moment-to-moment gameplay and repetitive environments impose an unavoidable malaise. Given the fact that the game is based on actual accounts of psychiatric treatment in the early 1900s, you might be better off looking up the real stories that inspired The Town of Light rather than forcing your way through a version of them here.