MADiSON might just be one of the best horror games I’ve ever played. It’s got everything I love about a horror game: creeping tension, a disturbing story and lore, jump scares, and a monster you’ll be thinking about whenever you walk down a dark hallway. As far as first games go, developer Bloodious Games has delivered a terrifying experience.
MADiSON begins as any good horror game should: with mystery, bloodied hands, and no way to defend yourself against the nightmares. As the game progresses, you’ll slowly peel back the veil, getting a peek at the truth behind the terror (it's more terror).
The story in MADiSON is one of the key areas the game sets itself apart from other titles in the genre. It’s got all the trappings of a great horror tale: murder and dismemberment, ancient rituals and rites, family fractures, a tormented mind, and a haunted house.
While the main story focuses on the protagonist Luca as they try to escape the house and work out what happened to them and their family, there is another narrative arc bubbling below the surface. This secondary narrative focuses on the lore of MADiSON, a serial killer, and an otherworldly entity.
As games have evolved, we've come to expect better stories, and the writers of MADiSON have delivered. There’s almost a folklore-like respect for the mythology of the universe on which the events of the game take place. The reasons for the entity are outlined and make sense, which adds to the believability and fear that is derived from what the player is experiencing. If the player can believe something like this could happen, it makes the horror all the more terrifying.
You can’t talk about a horror story without bringing up pacing. MADiSON never falls into the trap of unusual exposition. The bulk of information is presented via cassette tapes and answering machine messages, both of which are distributed evenly across the game. But there are also moments where the main character sees or hears things and comments on them. There’s a consistency to the game’s narrative as it unfolds that never leaves you starving for more or wishing for less.
Bump in the night
Not only was I terrified of the deeply unsettling story, but the gameplay left me breathless. Though there are jump scares, there is a threatening quietness to parts of the game. I often praise Amnesia: The Dark Descent for its use of atmosphere and stillness in the darkness as a means of horror, and the same can be said about MADiSON. When you’re not being scared by a monster, the atmospheric sounds create a creeping dread that tickles at the back of your neck. You’ll be on edge waiting for a scare that never comes.
In terms of the monster in MADiSON, the team at Bloodious understood the assignment. A monster makes or breaks a horror game or movie. If it’s not done right, it will come off cheap or poorly thought out. What’s worse is when the explanation of the monster doesn’t fit or there’s simply no effort made to give the monster lore and appreciation. In MADiSON, the rich mythology the team has woven into the monster makes it a truly terrifying beast that also makes sense for the environment.
Visually, the game is impeccable. The monster is actively unpleasant to look at. I was constantly cringing away from my monitor as I desperately sprinted down hallways. To make matters worse, sometimes the game will force you to walk toward your fear, as it’s the only way to go. There’s also an oppressive darkness that swallows the boundaries of rooms and even when there is light, it’s sickly and grotesque and offers little comfort.
Fear is the little-death
In terms of gameplay, MADiSON focuses entirely on puzzle solving and moving around this clearly haunted house. While the camera sway is excessive, it’s at least stylized and adds to the jittering stress of trying to solve puzzles as the logic part of your brain tries to wrestle control from your fight-or-flight instincts.
For me, the gameplay element in horror titles I find most appealing is the search. Whether it’s a search for a key to a locked door, the discovery of a safe’s combination, or the solution to an item-based puzzle, these are the parts I find enjoyable. All of these are here in MADiSON and are present throughout the entire experience. Even toward the end of the game, where things get a little more confrontational, you’ll still be solving puzzles.
As for the challenge aspect, there were only a few times where the solution to puzzles weren’t as clear as I would have liked. This problem was compounded by a lot of running back and forth between locations. At some points I would scour the entire house trying to find the next place to continue the story only to randomly interact with something from early in the game that would initiate progression.
Other than this outlier, the rest of the puzzles had a logical cadence. A key that was discovered would clearly belong to a door that had been walked past. A candle needed to go with its corresponding painting. Pictures had to be placed in the correct order. It was just difficult enough to make me scratch my head without causing frustration.
You can’t very well talk about MADiSON without bringing up its biggest gameplay mechanic, the Polaroid camera. This device is your primary means of interacting with the environment. It’s not just for solving puzzles as it can also be used for illuminating the dark. It is extremely unsettling to use as a means of lighting the way. I was in a constant state of fear of what the flash would reveal for the brief frames that I could see.
MADiSON is consistent, and that’s one of the key factors in a great horror game. A lot of games tend to struggle with a sluggish second act after an incredible opener or fall off in the final act, but that does not happen here. The puzzles remain a delight to solve, the tension never eases up, and just when you think you’re safe, a light will flicker, and you’ll catch a glimpse of the monster and you’ll need to change your pants. Beyond this, the story and lore is disturbing on a true crime level and manages to maintain its pacing. Suffice it to say, MADiSON is an unnerving, unsettling, and truly terrifying experience.
This review is based on a Steam key provided by the publisher. MADiSON is available on July 8, 2022 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch.
- Horror elements are excellent
- A creepy and unsettling story
- Jump scares and tension-based horror
- Superb audio including voiceover, music & atmos
- Big focus on puzzles
- Striking and upsetting visuals
- Camera sway is a bit much
- A lot of running back and forth
- A couple of obtuse puzzles
Sam Chandler posted a new article, MADiSON review: A snapshot of true terror