The decrepit mental asylum is a setting that every horror franchise eventually visits. And when you close your eyes and picture such a place, it's not hard to see why. The concepts associated with the term provide inspiration for endless haunted-house narratives. But recently, many have argued that games like Outlast cast an unfair stigma on the mentally ill and the people hired to treat them. Seemingly in response, developer LKA got to work building upon a noble concept: a horror game that closely follows real-world history by delivering a frank, earnest portrayal of the people who walked among these cold, dark halls. And when it comes to doing that, The Town of Light enjoys a degree of success. But when it comes to being a game - as in, something you'll feel compelled to sit down and play - it's a broken mess.
In The Town of Light, you play as Renée, a woman who wanders back to an abandoned Italian mental asylum in search of answers about her troubled past. The rooms she visits and the notes she picks up slowly allow her to find closure, while also gaining a newfound understanding of the internal politics that made it the hellscape it was. It's a disturbing journey, rife with memories of sexual abuse, emotional neglect, forbidden lust, and deep shame. And ultimately, you're in control of whether Renée can find the strength to move on.
Reading that synopsis makes the story seem like it ought to be profound and unforgettable. Unfortunately, the clunky gameplay reaches astonishing lengths to undermine its impact. First of all, you're just so incredibly slow. Initially this isn't a problem, because the asylum has a great sense of presence with its immaculate detail and bleak atmosphere that no reasonable player would want to rush through. But shortly before the halfway point, when you've seen just about everything, Renée's zombie-like gait becomes annoying. Two-thirds of the way through, it's just unbearable - and I'll explain why in a bit. Then there's the way you interact with things, via a system as finicky as anything I can recall playing. Your tiny cursor needs to be perfectly placed over whatever you're trying to pick up or use. A light switch, for example, cannot be flipped by hovering over the panel; you have to fidget with the controller until you're centered on the five-or-so pixels that compose the switch itself. This can be alleviated by turning down the control sensitivity, but now Renée turns her head as slowly as she walks. Pick your poison.
In a game like this, it should come as no surprise that you're required to use your intuition to progress. What is surprising is how poorly this concept is implemented. Deducing what to do and where to go rapidly devolves from intuitive and elegant to obtuse and frustrating. Over the game's four-hour length, I'd need two hands to count the number of times I was sure I was headed in the right direction, only to find nothing important at my destination. So, at the pace of a dying Segway, I'd turn around and search in another direction, this time absolutely clueless. On the flipside, when the few interactive puzzles come up, they're almost comically obvious. Here, the difficulty instead stems from trying to get the game to cooperate. From doors that constantly get stuck on you, to those many, many switches that require surgical precision to hit, the whole thing just comes off as borderline unplayable at times. I'm not exaggerating anything here. The Town of Light is an absolute chore to play.
That's not to say there isn't anything good here. When you're not playing it, the story gets to shine, especially during its haunting, hand-drawn cutscenes depicting Renée's turmoils as a teenager. And as I mentioned earlier, this place has a great sense of atmosphere. In particular, I really appreciate the tonal contrast presented by the bright, idyllic meadows outside the asylum. There are times - rare, fleeting times - when it almost comes together; when you're able to see what the developers were shooting for. Most commendable is the final half-hour: a well-paced showcase of revelations that reaches a graphic and deeply disturbing crescendo. Nonetheless, it's a bit too little, far too late.
By the final hour, I was all but certain that The Town of Light's story is severely undermined by its atrocious gameplay. And then something happened, something that confirmed my sentiments and then some. I was searching for the right place to trigger the next cutscene, carefully holding forward because strafing and turning just further impedes Renée's excruciating pace, when I hit a dead end. Knowing I would now have to endure more snail's-pace wandering, I turned around to walk back through the doorway to my useless location... and yet another door got stuck on me. And in spite of everything, in spite of the heavy, ponderous themes and deep sadness emanating from the entire narrative, I just laughed. Yes, I paused the game, shook my head, and laughed because of how awful it was to play. In this bittersweet moment, I realized that I didn't even care about ending Renée's torment when my own, as a player, was so palpable. With this in mind,The Town of Light ultimately achieves very little of what it sets out to do.
The Town of Light features a harrowing, historically-accurate story of mental illness and society's failure to understand it. Unfortunately, its steadily-worsening gameplay ultimately obscures the impact and importance of this tale, rendering even one playthrough far from worth it. I will grant that it made me want to read about 20th-century mental asylums on my own time, but I suppose that says it all; just read about these asylums and you'll spare yourself a lot of pain.