Mental health is a topic that rarely gets attention in the gaming world. I would even go as far as to say that it isn’t the kind of subject matter that lends itself well to the hobby as a whole. Heck, this could really be a topic that extends in its uneasiness to daily life in general. It’s just not something that is talked about. For better or worse, this sets the stage for LKA.it’s new thriller, The Town of Light. The game itself is a gut-wrenching tale that takes the player through an adolescent’s venture into psychosis. Yep, it’s about as fun as the subject matter might imply, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The bulk of the storyline takes place in an abandoned asylum, because what would a thriller be without the constant threat of paranormal bumps in the night? The player is exploring the ruins of this building, in search of the answers to what happened to a specific patient, by the name of Renee, who was a resident in the early 1940s. Through interacting with the environment in odd, and quite frankly nonsensical ways, the story begins to reveal itself. Using both flashback sequences and beautifully animated gothic cinematics, the plight of this poor child springs to life.
There is something to be said for developers that are comfortable telling a storyline as raw and unflinching as The Town of Light. It’s apparent that they were uncompromising in their intensely dark narrative that places Renee in the path of pedophiles, inhumane treatment and even sexual depravity. As a parent with a one-year old girl, I found myself at several junctures literally yelling at my screen in dismay. I just wanted to reach through the screen and give this poor child a hug. For this very reason, even though it clocks in at roughly about four hours, it was emotionally taxing. This girl has seen some shit that would make your skin crawl and blood boil, and the true extent of the madness can only be revealed by delving deeper into her rapidly melting mind.
While meandering through the mental hospital, there are several scenarios where the player is asked to recreate a certain series events, in order to kick off another flashback-based pocket of exposition. Unfortunately, the way that the game actually communicates these objectives to the player is piss-poor at best. To further muddy the waters, once you do figure out the ultimate end-goal, it then becomes an exercise in pixel hunting, while you scan the environment, searching for the only three interactive items in a room. These handful of selectable objects are usually the key elements that can be used to solve each of the haphazardly slapped together puzzles. These tasks rarely make narrative sense, yet if you want to progress it’s just better to not ask questions. Why the hell am I trying to find a random doll? So I can then put her in a wheelchair that must then be taken downstairs in an elevator, in order to put her under a series of spotlights. Why? Because video games, that’s why.
Probably the bigger issue is the total lack of cohesiveness for the game as a whole. There were entire stretches where there is nowhere near enough direction being provided to the player. Thanks goodness for using the touchpad as a hint button, because there were at least a dozen points where literally no information was provided after completing a cinematic. Even worse yet, there were several instances of trying to solve puzzles that were actually completed successfully, but because one key element was left slightly askew nothing would happen. Probably the most insulting part of the entire process is that there actually is narration dialog that has been recorded to help players that are struggling. It just takes an eternity and a half in order for this assistance to be triggered. To put this delay into perspective, there was one specific riddle that took me almost ten minutes of fumbling with environmental objects before the help kicked in. Honestly, by that point I didn’t want help. I wanted to quit.
But frustrations aside, if you are willing to look past the lack of technical polish and obvious design shortcomings, there is quite a bit that The Town of Light brings to the table. While some may try to tag it has a horror title, this is probably a bit of a stretch. Well, that is unless you’re counting the horrific ways that people are treated throughout the storyline. If this is even remotely close to how mental patients were treated in the 1940s, it’s a small miracle that anyone survived. It’s very obvious that this is the core thesis that the developers were looking to explore, because it shines through blaringly loud and abundantly clear. It’s infinitely more sobering when you consider that these acts are being perpetrated against a mind that is still in its developmental stages.
A Harrowing Descent
Despite the fact that it’s obvious that Renee’s mental state is deteriorating as the plot progresses, she is still an immensely relatable character that you genuinely hope can conquer her inner demons. Even as the lines between insanity and reality begin to blur, it becomes even harder to face the fact that several of the events as they initially play out, could truly be figments of an extremely confused perception. Facing the reality of a potentially fallible narrator is a challenging concept that is even further exacerbated if you have fully bought into her as a character. Thankfully, from a storytelling perspective, this turn is executed to perfection.
If you’re looking for a feel-good gaming experience, it’s probably best to steer clear of The Town of Light. It’s a darkly haunting narrative that touches on a subject matter that doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention nowadays, while also avoiding falling into the trap of sensationalism. As long as you can get past some of its legitimate structure issues, not to mention a general lack of a cohesive gameplay thread, it provides a depressing, yet unforgettable quest into a person’s descent into madness. While this is definitely not an experience that I plan on putting myself through ever again, it will undoubtedly stick with me for a long time.
Review code for The Town of Light provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.