It is perfectly clear, right from the pre-game warning screen, that this is a game that won’t be pulling any punches. The Town of Light tells the tragic tale of a teenage girl, Renée, suffering mental illness inside the walls of an early twentieth century Italian asylum, and while the characters are fictional, everything else is based on true events. An abandoned, decrepit mental hospital would make an ideal setting for a traditional horror game, but the fact that this title is based on a real location instantly ratchets up the atmosphere.
The Town of Light is essentially a walking simulator in which you play as an older Renée revisiting Volterra in order to piece together the fragmented memories of her time as one of its patients. Most of the story is told through narration that gently guides your hand through the decaying hallways and wards, although you are allowed to explore to an extent. Doing so provides a little more context to the setting with a smattering of interactive items you can examine, such as old documentation describing a patient’s belongings at admission, or strange coins - the hospital’s very own currency. Scoping out each and every room within the building isn’t necessary, but really helps to flesh out the asylum and its dark history.
There are also eight diary pages to collect as you play, usually slightly out of the way, and finding them pieces together some of Renée’s backstory. It’s clear that the developer wants you to soak in as much of the asylum as you can, and you should. From the bizarre graffiti that adorns the peeling walls to the bloodstained wireframe beds, the setting is a unique and powerful presence that is both deeply haunting and fascinating. Graphically it’s not the cleanest, and some lengthy loading times detract from the experience somewhat, but it’s hard not to be engrossed by the recreated hallways of a real derelict hospital.
Of course, it’s through the main story that you’ll learn of Volterra’s darkest aspects. It should come as no surprise to learn that conditions during its operation were horrific; knowledge of mental illnesses in the early 1900s was rudimentary, nurses were overworked and cruel, and patients were living in overcrowded wards. Inhumane practices and awful mistreatment ensured the closure of Volterra in 1978, but until then, thousands of poor souls bore the brunt of it all.
Renée’s narration makes up the majority of the storytelling, and it is sometimes accompanied by hand-drawn cut scenes that help to illustrate things as they were. Occasionally, you’ll also act as her inner self, selecting from a couple of options to help her piece together her story at certain moments. There are no alternative endings, but the three-hour story can divert during some chapters, encouraging multiple playthroughs if you want to see every narrative thread. Unfortunately, the story becomes confusing as it goes on, thanks to some wonky writing. The narration speaks about Renée as if she’s a totally different person, and while it seems like the story is purposefully abstract in places, it can be difficult to keep tabs on what’s real, or what actually happened.
It’s a shame that the story strays into baffling territory, not helped by some surreal sequences that feel slightly out of place, as it does contain some truly harrowing and hard-to-watch moments. As we’ve said, it may be that the story was intended to be somewhat obscure and open to interpretation, but we feel that the writing could’ve done with another pass over to ensure that players are intrigued by the narrative rather than flummoxed by it. That said, The Town of Light comes as close as games dare to successfully tackling mature, delicate subject matter head on, and that its foundations are built on real events means it really drives its message home.
The Town of Light is a powerful experience that highlights a fascinating, if chilling, chapter in human history. The heavy atmosphere is achieved through the very real setting of Volterra, and Renée’s unfortunate tale of life inside its walls that represents the woes of many real people. The story meanders a little too far into obscurity and can become confusing, and some long load times scupper things further. While you won’t necessarily have fun in the traditional sense, it’s worth playing if you’re at all interested, as it contains some striking sequences that will stay with you long after you finish.