The Town of Light PS4 horror game impressions from the Volterra Asylum

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The Town of Light PS4 screenshot outside the Volterra Asylum

Volterra in Italy is a place full of natural beauty, yet nestled off the beaten track among its lush green valleys and rolling landscapes, away from its peaceful medieval squares and impressive towers, lies a haunting reminder of its past.

Presiding over this quaint Tuscan hilltop town stands the abandoned building of the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum, a location that has inspired the creators of upcoming psychological horror game, The Town of Light. So much so that indie developer LKA has recreated this spooky mental hospital for players to skulk around as they immerse themselves in a harrowing tale of one of its many unfortunate patients.

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An abandoned corridor in the Volterra Asylum (photo by PlayStation Universe)

In a recent press trip to Italy, PlayStation Universe bypassed the no-entry signs of the Volterra Asylum to find out more about this unique historical building and how it ties in with the latest PS4 and Xbox One horror game. What we discovered was a painful narrative etched with sadness that explores mental health and madness to a degree we’ve not experienced before in a videogame.

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The Volterra Asylum was typical of mental hospitals across Europe post-war up to the late 70s. This was an era when mental health still wasn’t fully understood and many patients, who would now be treated at home for issues such as mild depression, were sent away to be dosed up to their eyeballs. Subject to abuse by power-crazy individuals, some patients became victims of cruel rehabilitation that could often trigger their insanity or make it worse.

Shut down in the 1970s due to its treatment of patients, Volterra Asylum’s peeling walls and large empty rooms echo with tales of abuse from ‘inmates’ who were apparently “losing their marbles.” In the words of LKA creative director Luca Dalcò, the aim of The Town of Light is to “underline the suffering of those patients and tackle the stigma of mental health within the narrative.” It’s a brave step for a developer’s first ever game, and one that deviates from the ‘norm’ of typical horror titles.

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There is no light, only darkness through these doors (photo by PlayStation Universe)

The isolation of the hospital from the town speaks volumes about the abandonment and loneliness that its patients must have felt. The atmosphere as we wandered around its rubble-strewn corridors is oppressing, suffocating almost. Walls are covered with mysterious runes and messages of hope and despair, while medical trolleys and padlocked gates serve as poignant reminders that this was a place of both rehabilitation and imprisonment.

Related: The Town of Light trailer

Once housing over 5,000 patients, the large cream exteriors of the asylum’s two main buildings strike an imposing figure against the backdrop of Volterra’s green pastures. It’s a stunning piece of architecture, yet its iron-barred windows, barren corridors, and rotting doors hanging off their hinges give it an unnerving edge. Consequently, the Volterra Asylum is the perfect setting for a horror game.

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In-game screenshot of the Italian mental hospital

Abandoning typical horror game clichés of butt-clenching jump-scares and ambling zombies, in favour of a more passive, thought-provoking journey through hell for one young patient, The Town of Light focuses on the fictitious story of 16-year old Renee, but is based on real events. While this scared young girl is the soul of the game, the asylum also manages to play a starring role.

From the overgrown woodland path and benches etched with indecipherable messages surrounding the building, to the complicated interior layout and myriad of rooms branching off moody corridors, it’s quite remarkable to see how LKA has used the asylum’s blueprint for The Town of Light. Set in the present day, with flashbacks to the period when the asylum was operational, the game begins as Renee seeks to uncover more about her past as you walk in a first-person perspective the exact route that we took to the Asylum.

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A chill ran up and down our spine as we entered the mental hospital and explored areas that we’d just visited, including the boiler room, surgery rooms and various clinics. The design team have done a tremendous job at capturing the haunting feel of the asylum, and with every step you take there’s a feeling that something unnerving lurks around the corner. We were told in advance that The Town of Light is a dark tale, but nothing really prepared us for what we uncovered.

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In one section, you push Renee’s doll around the asylum in a wheelchair

The Town of Light is a walking simulator, and as such gameplay mechanics are few and far between. There’s some light puzzle solving, which generally involves you having to work out which area or room to head to next, but largely it’s about exploration and unravelling the story of Renee. You do this by finding documents and notes that build nicely on the backstory, and create a powerful picture of what was a traumatic time for such a young girl.

Though exploration is dealt with from the first-person viewpoint, LKA handles the more sensitive side of the storytelling via hand-drawn storyboards. We don’t want to spoil any surprises here, but suffice to say that the decision to shift away from a realistic portrayal of the horrors that occurred in Volterra was a wise one considering the graphic nature of what occurs. Renee’s tale is certainly disturbing, and the only light that we found in our two-hour game session was the one from her torch as she searches through the darkness, experiences hallucinations, and struggles with her sanity.

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In-game screenshot of the creepy asylum corridor

The lack of jump scares does feel quite odd in a game of this ilk, but with the clever use of dark imagery and the impressive setting of the asylum, The Town of Light is still utterly disturbing, and immersive enough that we found ourselves totally wrapped up in its slowly unfolding tale. Audio work is impressive too with a clever balance of no music whatsoever (just the noise of your footsteps on concrete, or the crunching of leaves under your feet) combined with doors slamming shut of their own accord or the laughter of children, which leaves you totally on edge.

Make no mistake about it, The Town of Light is a mentally challenging game that delivers some powerful imagery which often stopped us in our tracks to take a breather to think about what we’d just witnessed. After two-hours of gameplay we felt emotionally drained, but were keen to find out more. Whether there’s any hope in this dark tale of mental illness remains to be seen, but we get the impression that LKA wants us to leave The Town of Light experiencing something quite powerful and poignant, and it’s not going to be a happy ending. We’re preparing ourselves for the worse when the game releases on PS4 and Xbox One later this year.