On the surface, The Town of Light looks very much like every other Unity engine first person horror. An abandoned asylum as a setting certainly doesn’t paint a different picture either. The Town of Light isn’t a jump scare-filled virtual ghost train though, it’s a thoroughly grim, depressing story, partially inspired by real life events –setting included– about the abuse and neglect of a group of women in an asylum during the 1940’s. Does the developer manage to make such a disturbing, heartbreaking history resonate as a videogame story?
As previously mentioned, The Town of Light is not a horror game in the traditional sense. It’s not about tension, creeping dread, nor being stalked by unnamed things through corridors. The Town of Light is more like an audio tour through a selection of the history of a long-since abandoned real world asylum in rural Italy. The horrors here are inspired by the grim reality of how unquestionably poor mental health facilities once were at handling mental illness. Sadistic, depraved orderlies are the closest this game has to tangible villains, as the stories of their heinous indiscretions towards vulnerable, troubled women are recalled in an almost matter of fact manner by the protagonist (who appears to struggle understanding where she fits into all this herself).
It’s not a pleasant experience, in the sense that there’s no respite, hope, or relief to be gleaned from the dark path this tale treads, yet that’s The Town of Light’s strength. It doesn’t shy away from the sheer awfulness of its subject matter, doesn’t romanticize it, nor cheapen it by shoe-horning in more traditional horror tropes. By grounding so much of the game in reality, there’s an aura of uncomfortableness earned by The Town of Light’s narrative, but it’s a shame that the technical side of things doesn’t do that proper justice.
The Town of Light suffers from many of the same issues that plague a Unity engine-developed title. The visuals are decent enough, but definitely on the lower end of the quality scale, with the highlight being the dilapidated asylum which truly feels like a place lost to time. What detracts from this is a rash of pop up gripes, with objects and textures just materialising mere feet from your virtual face. Then you have framerate trouble, as the game jerks and shudders on occasion, further breaking concentration.
Attempting to depict realistic character models is often the bane of indie titles, usually circumnavigated by artistic interpretation filling in for realism. The Town of Light uses hand drawn cutscenes to fully articulate certain scenes, and this is a method that probably should have been the game’s ultimate focus, because when we do get in game characters, they look hideously mannequin-like. There’s a shower scene between two characters where this is most apparent, the sheen of water on skin just makes the characters look like someone is carefully bumping together dolls rather than any meaningful interaction
Away from visual grumbles, the controls are a touch off. The slow pace of The Town of Light means this is less of an issue than it could have been, but a jerky turning circle coupled with a troublesome framerate just doubles the unpleasantness when the two meet.
I suppose the only other complaint I could have is not entirely a fault of the developer, rather one of what surrounds The Town of Light as comparables. I’ve already mentioned how this is not horror in the sense most first person indie titles tend to be. Nor is it narrative-driven and tactile enough to measure up to ‘walking simulators’. The Town of Light is an informative, bleak kind of horror that serves more as a loose history lesson than an actual story (despite attempts to tell one), but to convey that point properly to a wider audience, fuelled by the typical horror experiences, is a tough ask.
You can quite easily see The Town of Light being misunderstood thanks to a perceived lack of dread or jump scares (even though it’s not the point of it), more so when you factor in the game’s numerous technical failings. It’s fair to say it’s a largely flawed game on a technical level, and while grimly informative, it rarely delivers as a story, but by being a real departure from the bog standard horror moulds such games usually reside in, The Town of Light has just enough about it to be truly, darkly fascinating for the short time you spend with it.