Review: The Town of Light (PlayStation 4)
- Release Date (NA): June 6, 2017
- Release Date (EU): June 6, 2017
- Publisher: THQ Nordic
- Developer: Lka.it
- Genres: Psychological horror walking simulator
- ESRB Rating: Mature
- PEGI Rating: Eighteen years and older
- Also For: Computer, Xbox One
Single playerLocal MultiplayerOnline MultiplayerCo-operative
The Town of Light (PS4)
It is a dark and psychological game featuring quite graphic depictions of abuse, neglect and other unpleasant things. All fit well in context but if the mere depictions of such things are not for you or your kids then walk away now.
I played it in English. Text is available in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese. Dub is available in English, Italian and German. Credits list other languages but they were not included in this copy.
Move over Assassin's creed, you have competition in the oddest disclaimer game.
In instances like these we occasionally have a little discussion along the lines of “what is a game?”. We can then cook up all manner of things involving win states, failure states, choices to be made, tests of skill and more besides. Sometimes it goes further and we have to create terms like interactive film and, worse, things like “experience”.
While I have been known to read books on game theory for fun I am actually of the “make my own
fun game” persuasion, or maybe even play a role of a sort. Other times the work in question will have a pertinent message of some form.
Here I am lacking in the first one and the second… I suppose I had not really considered what the state of budget/state run, long term, secure, female, mental healthcare was like in late stage fascist/world war 2 era Italy before, however I would be unlikely to assume it was good. Also that probably means fans of “unique” in their games have a new one, personally I go with good over unique or innovative when picking games and for that you get to read on.
Mental hospital, creepy notes, paint peeling. Talk about setting a scene and we have not even started yet.
Anyway lacking any other framing method this reminded me somewhat of the old language class staple of “here is, or think of, an object/scenario/location, write a story involving it”. Except here rather than an essay or something conveyed through the medium of interpretive dance you have a... game I knocked out over the course of an evening. Possibly would have been less but there were some considerable loading times at points.
Going into this I also wondered what it might be like if the player character was not all there in the head. I am still apprehensive about it but it was not half the problem I thought it might be.
If you read the first few paragraphs you knew more than I really did going into this. I could have learned more, and there was a nice film student video covering things you can see from the main menu but I only saw that after I finished the game. So I was dropped in front of an old tumble down building in something like the modern day. Cool, maybe I am an urban explorer. *walks* that can't jump a small fence.
Said fence proved to be a problem as well so I wandered around the starting area for a while playing with everything I could see. In Virginia I commented that it was the first time in a game I got to play with a microfilm, here I got to play on a see saw, a slide, some swings and a roundabout, but sadly the rocking horse was not interactive.
Eventually I made it inside and the story begins. After that you also get some nice maps, a helpful hint button and revisit most of the areas a few times so you are more familiar by this point. To that end I mostly avoided the 90s adventure game problem of walk everywhere, speak to everybody, open everything, rub everything on everything else, something I dreaded when the review code came with a walkthrough.
I guess you are some kind of ghostly echo and you play as a former inmate reliving their time there over a period of years, unlocking and understanding more areas as you progress, and some of the things which led to that point. Spoiling the story any more than what has already happened would serve no great purpose so it won't be.
Suffice it to say the game plays nicely with unreliable narrator, unreliable historical accounts (going by the recollections of the player then bad happenings being covered up more than once), incomplete information, dream sequences and more besides. Not a terribly accurate portrayal of mental illness but certainly something interesting to explore within a game engine. Peppered throughout are various historical documents, texts, propaganda of the era and some of the scary things that used to be called psychology/psychiatry back in Italy at that time (again as if it needed stating then the combination of Italian fascism and similar vintage Roman Catholic beliefs was not a winner, and somewhat behind the rest of the world which was hardly nice by today's standards). At the same time no punches were pulled and you got to see things at their ugliest, managing also to avoid slipping into voyeurism.
One of the cool little flavour text pieces/items found
At no point did the developers appear to cast the player character as someone that did not need some help, which is nice, however there was a constant question of “more harm than good” which was unpleasant to play though, in a good way, and nice to see in general. Or at least that was the impression I got and having read the game website as I finish typing this I see the line "Her only fault" featured prominently so there is that.
Technically you are given choices, though to say they are unclear as to their effects (at times you are the player character, at times you are you yourself playing as some kind of doctor/well wisher aiming to help the player character (or maybe not), at others you might just want the game to get going) would be an understatement. Said choices do also lead to different paths through some parts of the game, you could fairly easily brute force your way to the one your wanted as well (each action immediately sees a cryptic symbol appear and the key is available in the chapter selection). All roads lead to Rome though. Speaking of endings the last few segments maybe felt a bit rushed, doubly so when they introduced a nice new area to see.
One of the choices
Graphics and Audio
The thing is built in the unity engine and the opening set piece uses the “grow in” rather than pop in approach I have seen a few times before now. What was more annoying were the shadows (pictures around here) which popped in at fairly short distances and were quite noticeable. In the building it was not so bad and the light engine was pretty good, especially if you were like me and liked to play with the windows and shutters. The static shots don't do it much justice, or else the motion blur covers more than I thought.
See the shadow from the lamppost.
See the box in the distance
Open world games and games like this are various praised or see some kind of uncanny valley when it comes to recreating a lived in world. For my money abandoned building is harder to pull off well and this does well for it.
I can't call the audio superb as that is reserved for something more than this, however had the musical stings, audio design and more not been there it would not have been half as compelling as it was with the lights turned off and only the light of the screen. Though actually to separate it from the whole does it a disservice; the game combined some nice control effects, visual effects, gameplay traits and audio to pull off some great sequences. Sequences where what they were though, and to call them disjointed would probably be a compliment… call it not as tight as it could be. I would also have to wonder if the "based on true" might have limited it in some way.
Many horror games could learn a thing or three from this, and it may be a spoiler but there are no jump scares despite what years of listening to some audio design like this has conditioned you to expect. Certainly far bigger games, games aiming at all the cinematic nonsense, from developers with far more to their name have done far far worse than this.
The voice acting worked well enough for me, there were a few missing sections, a few what could be programming glitches and sometimes the audio went further than the diary you fill in.
Coupled with the graphics glitches above this speaks badly of it being an “Enhanced version”. None of it really rendering the game unplayable but at the same time I do expect more from something as short and, for want of a better term, sweet as this.
You have those branches, none of the puzzles are particularly challenging, you have some small amount of exploration for extra hidden memories and some sequences you might want to replay with context from later events in the game. At the same time “one and done” is a valid way to play this game.
Probably more outside in this gallery than you really get in the game, equally none of the dream sequences here for fear of spoiling some of them.
If you are a card carrying member of the “not a game” club then this is not for you. If you are one to enjoy this sort of thing then there is something to it. It will lack the broader appeal of something like Gone Home but at the same time it was compelling enough for me to do once it got going. Earlier I made comments about writing a story to fit a place/theme/object, and urban exploration. I have watched a hundred urbex videos and partaken once or twice myself, this game was then in many ways more memorable than a simple video and photo/text writeup is likely to be, though at the same time telling a story about something is itself a trick to help memory. I don't know if I want every abandoned factory to get this treatment but I will not begrudge this its attempt at such a thing.
At time of writing for the PS4 this retails for £15, PC not much less. For the amount of polish, the length and general subject matter it is more than I would be willing to pay. Especially as about £1 more would get me a copy of Life is Strange. Previously I have used the term solid rental despite it not meaning much any more, and will again here.
+ A haunting exploration of a time and setting I have never really seen explored before.
+ Some great horror gameplay design.
- Some quite noticeable graphical glitches.
- Other aspects of polish a bit lacking.
- Not necessarily short for the gameplay style but still not the longest game out there.
out of 10
A dark and depressing exploration of a dark and depressing aspect in history. If you like the idea of that it will probably deliver.