PT meets RE7 meets Outlast meets Alien: Isolation, but does MADiSON scare itself apart from the past? The Finger Guns Review.
Good horror games have been rather lacking in the past few years. After a semi resurgence when Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 7, Outlast and PT arrived to separate us from our wits, it’s been relatively slim pickings. Last year, I snapped up the chance to review In Sound Mind, hoping it would scratch that desire to utterly release my bowels through my fear. Alas, it was quite the disappointment (though by no means a terrible game).
Creeping into MADiSON then, I was pretty cautious, not just because of that previous let-down, but because as one should be when it comes to games about demonic possessions. For me, good horror involves dense, dripping atmosphere, a constant feeling of unease and the sense that at any moment, something, somewhere is waiting in the wings to scare Hell itself from inside your body. It’s a tough one to crack for most, with only a handful ever really capturing the sense of impending dread that keeps you equally hooked while begrudgingly shifting forward.
With that in mind, let’s delve into the world of the Hale family. Is it worthy of consuming your soul or is it merely a teenager in a knock-off Aldi fancy dress costume?
PT… Is That You?!
It’s quite incredible to think of just how influential a 2014 concept demo could be. Would anyone at the time have believed that a Hideo Kojima inspired horror experiment would still have its influence reverberating through the gaming space almost a decade later? Well, the answer to that question is pretty clear: MADiSON looks like it’s been ripped straight from the same universe. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own ideas or unique identity, but the homage to that genre-defining demo is as identifiable as fire and Hell itself.
If you’re one of the lucky few who played PT while it was still available and enjoyed it, then know that MADiSON will be everything you want in a horror game. You hesitantly creep around a house. You solve obscure yet mostly logical puzzles. You have next to no introduction nor hand-holding for your next objective. Indeed, you’ll even end up stalked and hunted by creatures that only the most nightmarish of minds can conjure. I wouldn’t say it freaked me out quite as much as PT did, but it doesn’t do a bad job at all.
Which is a high compliment, by the way. I almost jumped out of my chair twice while playing, which never happened in RE7 nor in Alien: Isolation. I had frequent moments of questioning whether I really need to go down that obviously terrifying, barely lit hallway and took a break mid-way through my 5 1/2 hour playthrough just to let the adrenaline cool off a bit. If you’re here for the horror and to have your mental fortitude tested, you’ll be satisfied with MADiSON’s offering of scares and tension, I’m pretty sure.
Luca Your Mind
Now that we know MADiSON is indeed a scary game, worthy of being in the horror genre (many aren’t), let’s get down to the details of what’s causing this manifestation of fear. You awake (as per) in the middle of a living room as Luca, a youngish lad who’s dad is banging on a locked door behind him and nothing but TV white noise to light the room he’s in. You have bloodied, dirty hands and a note of slight petrification in your voice. Luca quickly decides the situation ain’t ideal and you begin your ordeal to figure out what in the world is happening and… wait… did that statue just disappear?!
Without spoiling the plot, Luca discovers that the house is his grandfather’s and was cursed through a demonic ritual some time ago. Unfortunately for Luca, that same ritual hasn’t apparently ended, so he’s now forced to endure the tortures of a sadistic demonic presence as he tries to figure out a plan and survive. Luca himself is decently voiced and actually reacts with some genuine confusion and despair at just how screwed up his situation is (unlike the always cool Ethan Winters, for example).
In terms of the overall plot, it’s fairly predictable and doesn’t have many twists and turns. Again, the PT inspiration is very much worn on sleeve as it involves a multiple homicide perpetrated by Madison Hale. We’re not sure why at first, but the details become clear by the midpoint of the run time and the story is more focused on fleshing out the small number of family members involved than delivering a big overarching narrative. While it’s nothing particularly sensational, it felt quite refreshing to have a horror story told concisely and without unnecessary fluff or pointless, nonsensical twists. The logic is sound and the structure works.
You won’t run into any other people during your Hellish adventure, but their influence is felt all throughout the home. Environmental storytelling like the various medications strewn around your grandmother’s room and various notes left by your nuclear family do most of the heavy lifting, aside from the occasional cassette tape you’ll come across. Why is it always cassette tapes?
A Photo A Day Keeps The Demons At Bay
Given that Luca’s grandfather was a stand-up role model, he didn’t keep many (read: any) weapons in his home, so Luca is left to fend for himself in the eerie household. Fret not however, as he is armed with a trusty polaroid camera. A device of many a use, it can briefly light up dimly lit areas of the dilapidated home and more importantly, it serves as Luca’s primary means of shifting through this dissociative space.
As there’s demons and hauntings involved, the Layers of Fear love-in becomes apparent as objects move of their own accord, doorways disappear from existence and those goddamn statues appear and disappear off-screen just enough to have you questioning your own eyesight. Simply looking at important parts of the environment isn’t enough when the other-worldly presence is playing hide-and-seek with your brain. Luckily, the camera acts as your gateway to making sense of the nonsensical.
You may approach a seemingly unimportant portrait, only for the polaroid photo to suddenly point you in the right direction of a door that definitely just wasn’t there a moment ago. You may notice a suspiciously placed plank of wood lent against a wall, only for the picture to reveal a hidden alcove lurking behind its dark, decrepit depths. By the end, you’ll even need the flash to fend off a particularly persistent and IBS-inducing mangled creature of slender-man proportions.
Unlike most other items, the camera is a constant during MADiSON and offers the tiniest of respite in this intimidating and nerve-shredding environment. The use of it as a way to encourage the player to think creatively in their environment and as a puzzle-solving tool is impressive. It only offers momentary relief from the imposing darkness, meaning it never gives the player a feeling of safety, but does enough to keep you from feeling completely helpless. Nice touches like your taken pictures being accessible in your inventory, discarded cards indicating interactable areas and the fact you even have to wait to shake the picture into existence means you don’t know for sure what’s there until a few seconds later all adds to the sense of immersion.
Exorcising Brain Teasers
Of course, no horror exploration game would be truly whole without a multitude of puzzles to wrap your possessed mind around. As you progress through the horrendous ritual, Luca will uncover more of the home, slowly opening up more rooms. Typically, dear old granddad left every door locked, so you’ll often be met with a stern message at the start, teasing you with the promise of what’s to come.
There’s a few sections to pick your way through, each with their own puzzle element to overcome. A series of interwinding tunnels that lead back on themselves to weave through. A cathedral that mixes multiple mazes with 3 different time periods that change up the location. I particularly enjoyed the clocks section, where I finally got to know why every clock had an interactable icon before that I just hadn’t been able to use. MADiSON does a great job of making the house itself feel like one terrifyingly cozy rubix cube you need to figure out, while also throwing in some variety through visual hallucination type sequences.
As far as puzzles go, MADiSON has a good offering. None especially blew me away or had me gob-smacked, but they (mostly) tread a good line between obscure for challenge but not too random to be frustrating. I found myself bewildered about 3 times in my playthrough, one at a portrait based puzzle and twice after being dropped back in the house with no indication of where I was meant to go next. I brute forced my way through the portrait challenge by just randomly moving things around and on the other two occasions I discovered it was my own idiocy keeping me from progressing, as the next step was actually pretty obvious.
I will say that while I solved the majority pretty alright, there were a couple I lucked out on rather than knowingly completed them, so your experience my vary slightly. There are no prompts, arrows or guidance tools for where you should or shouldn’t be going, it’s up to you and your explorative intuition to work it out. Personally, I much prefer the route of “less is more”, but you may come up stuck at a couple of points which can be frustrating as you aimlessly wander around the house trying to figure out what in the world you’re supposed to be doing.
Virtually every puzzle is solved through traditional horror tropes like finding and placing items in certain spots, hoovering up keys to plug into locked doors and interacting with random objects strewn about the environment. Had the game been longer than 5-6 hours, this may have become a problem through repetition, but it’s short enough that it never outstays its welcome. You’ll additionally need to manage your inventory which has 8 slots. Need to pick up another key? Better go deposit one of your now-defunct tools to do so. I will say I didn’t particularly like the final section which felt more trial-and-error and the randomness of the enemy behaviour was slightly frustrating, but on the whole, this demonic ritual is a solid and engaging affair. Occasionally, you’ll be traipsing back-and-forth a little too much to unburden your inventory or go collect a thing you need, but its infrequent enough to not impair the pacing too much.
So far, it’s fair to say MADiSON has been a good horror title. Solid puzzling, nervous yet engaging exploration and a straightforwardly violent story combine well as a motivation to play. What impresses the most however, is the audio and visual design, which elevates the horror elements massively and makes completing said gameplay tasks a veritable nightmare.
First off, the 3D audio design is fantastic. If you’re going to play MADiSON, make sure you do so using headphones and in the dark. Throughout the house, there’s constant creaking floorboards, doors opening and closing in the distance, murmurs, lightning, the lot. I’m pretty adept with horror titles and yet I found myself often looking over my shoulder and questioning if I’d really heard something. It creates a phenomenal atmosphere of tension and unease. I felt that ideal level of being on edge at the prospect of entering a new room or location simply because of the amazing audio effects going on in the 360 degree space around me. There’s a subtle use of ambient creepy music that permeates at just the right times, while one specific section had a voice repeating “you” in such a sinister way I had goosebumps throughout my body. I wanted to get out of there so, so badly.
It’s not just the audio though, as the visuals are just as impressive and nerve-shredding. Lighting in particular is gorgeous, evoking the most PT-esque fear of hallways you can imagine. When the lights go out, you’re enveloped in a thick, suffocating darkness that’ll have you desperately searching for an exit, and the lights do indeed go out. A lot. There’s some excellent visual imagery abound too, whether it be a watery basement with air-suspended limbs all around or a hallway with a thousand and one portraits glaring right at you. If there’s one critique, it’s probably that the environments become quite familiar towards the end, dampening a little of the tension through over-exposure. A bit more variety may have helped alleviate this, but it’s a relatively minor criticism.
MADiSON is especially impressive in the context of not having a AAA budget. The more condensed focus on a tighter, smaller space means more attention was given to each section and the way lighting, shadows and darkness are handled with such skill shows this was the right decision. It’s the Baker house from RE7 and the endless winding corridors of PT rolled into one panic-attack creating spectacle and it works very well. What’s most amusing is that the amount of danger you’re usually in is actually quite low for a significant proportion of the game, but the unpredictability of the environment, coupled with the fantastic audio and visuals means you’re always on alert, always on edge and always fearing the next corner.
Hale The Lucabyss
As mentioned before, my playthrough of MADiSON took me 5 and a half hours the first time round. Your mileage through the depths of demonic possession may take you longer or be drastically shorter, depending on your penchant for these kinds of puzzles and experiences. There’s a variety of achievements to test your fortitude against, including ones for finishing in under 2.5 hours and taking less than 45 pictures (I took 175, FYI). It’s the kind of game you can master and speedrun after your first blind run, giving a bit of needed replayability. There’s also 25 collectibles hidden about the house to snap pictures of, if you’re so inclined, as well as a harder difficulty with no visual indicators, should you be a real masochist.
While it isn’t the longest game by any means, it’s probably spot on for the kind of gameplay and scares that are on offer. Any more and it could have fallen into the Alien: Isolation problem of diluting the core experience with unnecessary padding and sequences that underwhelm. I certainly had a couple of parts I enjoyed/feared less than others, but it’s a package that largely delivers quality and care, which for me is much more valuable than lots of unimpressive content (looking at you, In Sound Mind).
If you’re into horror games you’ll absolutely want to give this a go. The physical edition is going to be retailing at £34.99 and that seems a pretty fair price point given the quality of the content contained. It reminded me of the best in the genre, sparking nostalgic memories of shouting at Outlast, dropping my controller in Alien: Isolation and me and my housemates becoming hysterical at PT.
I edged my way through MADiSON, querying every choice, overcoming my fight or flight response at every turn. It never completely overburdens you, but it has more than enough creativity and artistic merit to induce some serious scares. I was tense, nervous and reluctant throughout, which is the sign of a very good horror title. It’s not quite PT, but it’s got more than enough in here to have you spooked and vulnerable, just make sure you take out the lights, get a decent headset on and immerse yourself in this terrifying spectacle. You won’t (or, definitely will!) regret it.
MADiSON channels the best instalments of the first-person horror genre to deliver a frantic, nerve-shredding and atmospheric tale of demonic possession. It delivers the scares often and will have you tentatively looking over your shoulder at that shadow that definitely wasn’t there before. It’s been a while since I felt this much trepidation moving through a cursed home, but it feels frighteningly good to test this demonic presence again. A must play for horror fans this year.
MADiSON is launching on PC via Steam (review platform), PS5, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S | X and Nintendo Switch on July 18th, 2022.
Developer: BLOODIOUS GAMES
Publisher: BLOODIOUS GAMES
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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