Town of Light is a psychological horror walking simulator from Italian developer LKA which has been on PC since last year, but has now made its way to console. While it does an admirable job of exploring the dark and barbaric past of psychiatric medical treatment –particularly in how it relates to women – as an actual game it falls flat on its face.
Just waiting for a mate
The player takes the role of Renée, a troubled young woman who returns to the now abandoned Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, that she was once a patient of during World War 2. The game’s setting is a recreation of an actual Italian psychiatric hospital, which was renowned for its experimental and brutal medical procedures in the name of curing women of their various illnesses. At the time, illnesses need not be simply physical in nature, they could also be social conditions such as homosexuality or dabbling in onanism. Once inside the walls of these sorts of places, patients are slowly stripped of their humanity and dignity. In a cruel twist, their diminished status in the eyes of society also makes them easy targets for sexual assault by those charged with their care.
Renée’s plight is a dark and disturbing one. As you explore, the voice inside Renée’s head is one of calm, however the various medical files littered about the abandoned hospital tell a vastly different tale. Much of the game has the player at odds with Renee’s version of reality, and you’re never really sure that what you’re experiencing or remembering isn’t some distortion of reality that is filtered through Renée’s addled mind. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that Renée suffered immensely at the hands of her carers, and was the victim of unspeakably callous treatment.
While the dark themes are interesting, The Town of Light falls headlong into the trap that is always lying wide open for a walking simulator of this ilk: the gameplay is bare to the point of being inconsequential, and what little token gameplay there is ends up being exceedingly dull. Match this with some janky movement and glacial walking speed and you have yourself old Nonna’s recipe for extreme tedium. While there are some branching moments that determine how you get to the end, the entire experience is extremely linear in the way it shuffles you from one point to the next, sometimes putting a ludicrously easy puzzle in your way, sometimes just letting you wander around aimlessly.
Visually this is no masterpiece either. While it’s important to appreciate that the game did not have a massive budget, the aesthetic is the very essence of bleak and bland; incredibly rough nondescript textures repeat throughout the various spaces, and it becomes difficult to distinguish one area from another. The greenery of the surrounding grounds of the hospital is a welcome reprieve from the incredibly dull interior, but even then you’ll find yourself unable to get your bearings for the fact that everything looks the same. It also doesn’t help that the game has more invisible walls than all the Dark Souls games put together, and navigating can be extremely slow and painful. Furthermore, despite the humble graphics the game runs fairly poorly on PS4, with multiple technical hiccups and severe frame rate drops, particularly when the game loads while you’re walking.
The doll understands
Taste the bland
…the gameplay is bare to the point of being inconsequential, and what little token gameplay there is ends up being exceedingly dull. Match this with some janky movement and glacial walking speed and you have yourself old Nonna’s recipe for extreme tedium.
A welcome reprieve
Floral wallpaper… the horror!
A walking simulator that fancies itself a psychological horror game has to speak through its setting, not just in a conceptual sense, but in a visual sense. While I appreciate the subject matter, at no point did I personally feel connected to the horrors that the walls of the psychiatric hospital must have witnessed; it was largely up to me to use my imagination. Successful walking simulators can have minimal gameplay but need to draw in the player through the unique participatory nature of gaming as a medium. This is not the case here.
Reviewed on PS4