After watching the trailer for Town of Light, I knew I was interested. I'm incredibly interested in scary games, but I normally reserve them for spectating only as I'm not particularly brave. However, Town of Light looked to be just the right amount of creepy for me to play it. I remember reading somewhere that it was not a 'jump-scare' game, but was more of a psychological journey, which suited me fine - I recently played Layers of Fear, and that had enough jump-scares to set me for life.
Before booting up the game properly, I took some time to read Renée's Diary (accessed from the main menu) to get a better feel for what the game was about. The artist did a fantastic job making the book look like a real diary, and the writer provided some amazing storytelling. The cursive handwriting was a bit too difficult to read, but I felt it fit the 1930s era extremely well, and only enhanced the experience of reading it. I won't spoil the contents of the diary, but before you even start the game you feel deep sympathy for this sixteen year old girl, which sets up the rest of the game.
When starting up the game, I was given the opportunity to choose the brightness setting (as you do with most games that are primarily set in a dark environment). I chose to follow the developer's recommendations and have it quite dark, which was a mistake in my opinion. The remainder of the game was far too dark and uncomfortable on my eyes, especially when there were moments of brilliant white suddenly blasted in my face. The darkness was also offset by the fact that my laptop screen had that odd glow it has from the bottom, meaning I couldn't see much of the bottom of the screen. This wasn't my only issue with the lighting, however. The flashlight was far too dim, and looked as if someone had smeared mud on the glass, meaning it was only useful in pitch black areas.
The game involves you wandering around a dilapidated old asylum with various darkened hallways and mysteriously locked doors, which all together scream 'horror game' at you. I can genuinely say that within the first twenty minutes of playing the game I had to take a break and look at pictures of adorable animals on Instagram just to calm myself down.
The game had such an intense atmosphere of inevitable terror that I couldn't go down a certain corridor because I was so damned scared, despite knowing that nothing would jump out at me. Not only this, but while the game was paused and I was looking at #cutebabyanimals, I heard rustling and a knock in my headset. Yes, that's right, the sound effects continue even in the pause screen. As expected, I jumped out of my skin and had to go and make a cup of tea with my shaking hands.
After I had mustered up enough courage to put my headset back on, I settled down and attempted to explore the hallway from hell. It turns out that I had nothing to fear, as it was just an old and very empty bathroom (and was in fact the wrong way to go). From here-on out, I didn't actually feel scared again.
The game is split into fifteen chapters, with each ending after discovering part of Renée's story. I won't ruin anything for you, but the ordeals this poor girl has to go through are horrific and each one leaves you more and more shocked. I genuinely felt for her as I wandered around, piecing things together, finding out why she was put in the asylum and what happened to her after her arrival. While experiencing this story, I had to keep reminding myself that this game is set in the late 1930s to early 1940s and that mental health was not as understood as it is these days. Nevertheless, the occurrences still shocked me.
To begin with, I found myself becoming annoyed very easily, as I would frequently get lost or have to retrace my steps to the other side of the building as the prompts from the story were not very clear. I became heavily reliant on the "H" key, which would cause Renée to voice a hint as to where to go next. Occasionally this hint system would not actually yield any results, so I'd just have to wander until I found what I needed. This was not helped by the fact that the reticle would change so minutely (and even then, you had to get ridiculously close to the item) when I encountered an interactive object that oftentimes I would miss it entirely. I felt that wandering around with my face as close to objects as it was took away from the immersion of the experience somewhat and it felt more like a chore at times, looking for things just to move the story along.
For most of the exploration part of the game, you're alone, with just Renée's occasional voiceover providing story elements or prompting you to investigate further. In a few scenes there are other people present, but you are ignored. I think these brief moments actually add to the feeling of utter isolation and strengthen your bond with Renée. The 3D models of the human NPCs actually are not of a quality that matches the rest of the game, but they are so few and far between that it can be overlooked.
When Renée is recalling a particularly important memory, the art style changes to a more traditional hand-drawn style, the same as that in the diary on the menu screen. These cutscenes for me create more emotion and tell the story far better than they would if they were 3D. They make the story entirely Renée's and relay the emotions in the scene perfectly. Add in the brilliant performance by the voice actress, and you have yourself a meaningful narrative that grasps your heartstrings and yanks at them.
As for the other audio in the game - I wasn't a fan of the footsteps, as I felt they didn't match the movement of the camera particularly well and actually just made the movements feel slower. Other parts of audio such as music in a certain room, or screams (yes, screams) down a corridor would be playing loudly one second, then completely cut of the next, rather than smoothly fading out according to your proximity. Other than that, the audio played a definite, strong part in generating the eery feeling of being watched, yet also being entirely alone.
I'm glad I played this game, yet I'm not sure I would play it again, despite the fact that the story changes a little depending on your actions. In my opinion this is definitely more of an interactive story than a "psychological adventure", yet if it was a short film, or a written story, I don't think it would have had the desired effect. The ending to this game left me feeling completely devoid of happiness, and the only other piece of media that has been able to do that was the film Requiem for a Dream
. I recommend that anyone with a passion for storytelling in any form play this game, but some scenes may cause distress. I myself have never experienced anything remotely close to Renée's story, but Town of Light
has opened my eyes to the world of mental health in a way I didn't think it would, and it will stay with me for a long time.
+ Stellar storytelling
+ Strong atmosphere
+ Beautiful artwork
- Clunky mechanics
- Recommended brightness settings a tad too low
- Often left wondering where to go next