Game for another first person trudge around an abandoned mental institute?
Now, now, before you roll your eyes and trundle off, hear me out. This is something a little different. LKA have painstakingly recreated a real-life Italian asylum and coloured it with a ton of fact-based stories painting a terrifying picture of what mental health facilities were like in the past. And yet, despite that, it’s not a horror game, not in the sense we’ve come to expect. There are no jump scares or supernatural evils chasing you through the empty halls. You don’t have to hide from creatures with faces like dropped lasagna.
The horror that lurks in the asylum is a personal, uncomfortably human one. You play as a woman previously held at the facility wandering it once again, following a breadcrumb trail of broken memories to try and get some closure. The environment is atmospheric enough, if a little crude in places, bolstered by vintage anatomical drawings and posters. It’s a little rough around the edges but in the smaller moments – the gruesome graffiti on the walls, a stray sunbeam illuminating a dilapidated surgery – go a long way towards establishing The Town of Light as a piece of art. It definitely falls more into the vague “experience” side of things – gameplay, after all, is just walking from room to room triggering flashbacks and solving the odd simple puzzle. But the flashbacks themselves are self-contained artistic flourishes, sinister art style toying with perception and illuminating how a vulnerable person trapped in that environment might see the world around them. Nurses become faceless, frigid horrors, bed straps clawing hands – it’s not going to scare you, but it is going to depress the hell out of you.
The Town of Light is brave. It focuses in on real horror in a way so many games struggle to, without succumbing to cliché. It’s not biased in one direction, either – at the same time it’s pointing out how terrifying and barbaric things like lobotomies and electroshock therapy are, it’s also highlighting that at the time, these simply seemed like the best tools for the job. Miracle cures in a realm of medicine we hadn’t quite cracked yet. Ultimately, it’s down to perspective, and this is something that shifts and writhes under a classically unreliable narrator. Reneé’s memories are constantly contradicted, both by herself, and the evidence you find scattered around amongst the teeth-clenching medical implements that still populate the asylum. Was the asylum full of sadist doctors abusing an innocent patient? Or were they just doing the best they could with the tools they had? The truth is left vague. Cold and clinical in its presentation – these things simply happened, and happened a thousand times again to the insane, the traumatised, and the downright vulnerable. Reneé’s recollection of her time in Volterra becomes more and more dissonant alongside the documents that highlight the institute’s perspective, and it’s left to you to interpret what happens. Whichever path you take, the story concludes in an ending that is genuinely hard to watch – I’ve laughed and joked about the absurdity of violence and gore in horror games before, but The Town of Light made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin with the bare minimum of blood and guts.
Like our tortured heroine, there are some deep-running flaws that the game never quite reconciles. For a game about walking, getting about is downright atrocious. Imagine walking through thick porridge whilst someone repeatedly tries to glue your feet to the floor and you’ve got a decent idea of how unpleasant it is. Renee just ambles everywhere like a teenager killing time in a mall, there’s no urgency or fluidity to her passage through the world. The game has a slower storytelling pace than most – presumably to let you soak up some of the asylum’s creep factor along the way – but navigation just becomes a chore eventually, a ponderous crawl that chips away at your desires to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Upon my discovery that the game can take a couple of different branches towards the maudlin conclusion I almost felt inspired to replay it, to react differently to some of the dialogue, explore a little more of Volterra’s emptiness, but the toddling movement speed robbed me of my motivation.
The Town of Light stands apart as a gentle, but firm reminder that horror gaming still has a lot of growing up to do, and there are many more ways to unsettle people besides jump scares and monster chases. The 2-3 hours you’ll spend trying to discern truth from delusion will stay with you awhile, Volterra’s subtly disturbing, self-contained mystery both fascinating and repellent all at once. If you want to experience something genuinely new and interesting in the genre, now is the time.
- Beautiful, deliberate, and haunting game sometimes marred by unbearable navigation and grating voice acting. For a major improvement change the game to the Italian dialogue and just use subtitles.
- There are no jump scares – just sudden fades to chilling illustrations at times – and you don’t need to hide from anything. But Volterra will frighten you, if you think about it for too long.
- Puzzles are incidental and fleeting. More could have been done with the premise.
- Uniquely terrifying experiencing the asylum from a woman’s point of view. You will see some dark stuff.