The legacy of Hideo Kojima’s PT lives on once more. Taking the latest crack at the first-person psychological horror is MADiSON, a love letter to horrors of past and present.
Developed in Unity by the extremely small team at Bloodious Games over the last 6 or so years, MADiSON exhibits all the typical hallmarks of the psychological horror that have become extremely popular since PT and Layers of Fear—tight interiors, photorealism, intense audio, jump scares, ghastly tales—and though it initially delivers a spooked out punch it fails to sustain the same finesse as its predecessors.
Despite starting with a solid hook for the story and doing well to create an uncomfortable atmosphere, MADiSON ends up frustratingly relying far too much on a crutch of jump scares in an attempt to salvage itself from the tedium it serves up all too often. There are snapshots of brilliance here, but unfortunately overall this is one picture that just can’t quite find its frame.
Complete a Bloody Ritual
In MADiSON you play as Luca, the son to a family seemingly cursed by gruesome tragedy. Luca follows in the footsteps of his grandparents as he traverses through a night of horror, seemingly haunted by the evil spectre of the 80s serial murderer Madison and made to do her bidding in a demonic ritual that began decades ago and has since plagued your family. Together with the possessed camera of one of Madison’s victims, Luca must commit heinous acts and get to the bottom of his families supposed “illness” to hopefully put an end to the decades of terror once and for all.
The narrative and its themes tread on much the same ground as a lot of these psychological horrors: serial acts of trauma disguised as demonic possession, histories of violence and illness, vivid descriptions and images of abuses and gruesome murders—you could sub in numerous games here and you’re getting the same points. It’s the background of PT cast into the foreground, and frankly by this point after nearly a decade it runs a little trite for me personally. Once a game begins leaving details of a parental figure seemingly plagued by violent tendencies brought on by a supposed mental illness (except actually *wait!* maybe it’s something else causing this) and that this cycle has spanned across generations of violent actions, then you already know where we’re headed. It’s not rich ground anymore, nor is it surprising. But to give MADiSON credit it doesn’t fall on the mental illness crutch as much as I initially feared, and instead moves pretty quickly to better ground wherein Luca finds himself in a sickening game with a malevolent demon forcing him to do its bidding—much more fun for all the family!
Frame the Horror
Though I could tell where the story was headed right from go I still mostly enjoyed how it played out; Luca’s trials of horror proving to be vaguely interesting as it doles out a long history of gruesome actions and many bloodied victims all entangled in one story. MADiSON is set primarily in your grandparent’s house, however this tightly corridored photorealistic setting is mostly a hub area to the more nightmarish realms stemming off of it—the places where Luca must descend to uncover Madison’s story and continue this ritual. These areas typically require a puzzle around the house to enter, usually to find someway of getting a door open or accessing an item that will help you achieve entry. You’ll wind through the corridors of the main house many times, finding items and opening up new puzzles while every now and then a jump scare pops up to keep you on your toes—these get grating after a while though…
The trial areas will also be a puzzle of their own, usually involving your camera as the main tool to complete. By taking photos of key objects you can trigger paranormal events in the game, or alter your environment, which is usually how you solve a puzzle or open up an exit. The camera is also used a defensive measure at times too. I did enjoy the use of the camera both narratively and gameplay wise, since it forces you to do the one thing that a player doesn’t want to do in a horror game: look directly into a space for a prolonged period of time. There are excellent moments of tension where you’ll need to peak into a dark hole, for example, and the only way to see what is inside is via the flash on your camera.
The puzzles are generally good, mostly in due part to how varied and unique they each are, and how rewarding they can be to figure out, however like a lot of MADiSON’s problems they can become an exercise of patience. There is a lot of backtracking in the game, most of which feels unnecessary other than to keep you somewhat on edge because the game might throw a jump scare at you while tracking back just to pick up an item (not helped by the game’s bizarre choice to have an inventory cap). However, since there isn’t generally an actual tangible threat that can harm you these scares become more a nuisance than anything else; at a certain point when I knew a jump was likely coming I found myself just pointing at a 45-degree angle down while sprinting headfirst through hallways, often right through the shadowy figure or “blegghh” face (that’s the sound of a demon shouting during a jump scare, just fyi) or whatever else that was supposed to jump out and scare me. The scares are used too often and without much variation that it does just become lazy and tiresome, hence my brash method to ignore it.
The sound design of the game also plays a key part in crafting its scares and creating an ambient creepiness as you tread around. The house around you creaks and groans constantly, and random paranormal occurrences will offer a sharp bang or smash just to keep the hairs on your neck standing up. At first I was immensely creeped out by the atmosphere of the game, mostly in credit to its audio design as it bumped and croaked with intensified sound cues; entering a room was tense as every door creak would immediately have me feeling like something had entered behind.
However, though this intensified audio design works initially again it becomes tedious. At a certain point I realised that these scare-tactics didn’t even make sense, which brought down the entire creepy house of cards. The little bumps that ping suddenly, the doors creaking close, the rattles—most of them don’t actually stem from any tangible object. A door will creak and yet nothing has moved. An object will slam but nothing actually dropped. Like the jump scares, audio cues are seemingly just thrown in at random times to keep up the appearance of scariness, but when those sounds don’t connect to anything it leaves the whole thing feeling void of viscerality. You’ll grow to expect them, diminishing their effectiveness and before long making them just entirely inane and annoying. If nothing means anything why should I ever be scared?
The Terror of Tedium
This is generally the issue I ran into with MADiSON. For all that it does do well it eventually lets itself down with overuse or prolonged tedium. The backtracking in the game dulls the whole thing; the inexplicable inventory cap of 8 items (3 of which are taken up by un-droppable items) slows everything done for no reason; the jump scares become tiring and lazy; the audio scares similarly become boring and devoid of meaning. While the puzzles and the general creepy aura around the game are great and had me on edge, that work is undone by the game’s more grating aspects. There are some excellent highlights in here, which makes it all the more frustrating when they nearly always dragged down by an undue tediousness.
The “blue knees” segment of the game, for example, is one of the more terrifying set ups for a horror sequence that I have seen for a while, one that had me filled with dread when I realised where the game was taking me while playing at 1 in the morning, but the mechanics of this section soon became tiresome and dulled any earlier enthusiasm/terror I felt for it. What begins as something I didn’t want to face for terror reasons soon became something I didn’t want to face for tedious reasons.
I want to love MADiSON for what it can do brilliantly, for the game that is on the face of it an effective and chilling horror, and for its impressiveness as a small studio passion project, but it lets itself down all too often resulting in a fairly cookie cutter final product. The passion is evidently there, and I do believe that the future of Bloodious Games could be an exciting one if given access to a bigger budget/team, but for me MADiSON is little more than faded photo of PT’s original masterwork.
Final Score: 6/10