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Madison - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Camera is integral to gameplay
  • Complicated, multi-layered puzzles
  • Lulls player into false sense of security, then hits with effective jump scares
  • Story about demons and occultism

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Uncomfortable default controls and excessive cursor sway
  • Limited inventory forces unnecessary back-tracking
  • Occasional counter-intuitive puzzle
  • Protagonist's laughable voice acting spoils the atmosphere

Overall Impression : C
Actually pretty good once you get acclimated to it

Madison - cover

Developer:
Bloodious Games

Platforms:
PC (via Steam or GoG),
PS4 | PS5 < (via retail disc PSN digital download),
XBox S|X (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download),
Switch (via retail card or Nintendo Store digital download). (< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $35 USD

Original release date:
23 June 2022 (console),
7 July 2022 (PC)

Genre:
1st-person horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
6 hours

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity,
Strong Language, Violence

Official site:
madisongame.com

I feel like Halloween just wouldn't be Halloween anymore without playing some new P.T.-inspired indie horror game. This year's "hot" title seemed to be MADiSON by Bloodious Games, which I started playing with a group of 2 friends on Halloween night (after returning from taking the kids Trick or Treating), but we didn't get around to finishing until after the New Year. It wasn't that we didn't want to keep playing. Quite the opposite, in fact. The reason it took so long to finish is because all 3 of us really wanted to keep playing, so I had to wait till all 3 of us were available for a next session before continuing.

In addition to being another indie horror game in a long line of P.T. wannabes, MADiSON also follows in closely off the coattails of Visage. Both games heavily utilize a polaroid flash camera as a critical multi-tool, but MADiSON does one-up Visage by making the camera much more integral to core gameplay. While I only remember the camera in Visage being used as a source of temporary illumination, the camera of MADiSON is both integral to the story, and also absolutely necessary for solving multiple puzzles and for progressing the game's story.

Yet another indie horror game about wandering the halls of a haunted house -- this time with a camera!

Ocular Obscura

The core gimmick of MADiSON is that the player uses a polaroid camera to take pictures of the environment, and the resulting photograph will show things that aren't really there. These photographs will be used as clues to solve a puzzle or to progress the scenario, or taking the picture will just outright trigger the next objective. The house is littered with such puzzles. Unfortunately, the layout of the house, the pacing of the scenario, and the solutions to many puzzles can be a bit on the obtuse side. So much so, in fact, that Bloodious Games resorted to scattering blank polaroids near important objects, which act as obvious signposts that you should take a picture of the thing. This isn't exactly obvious at first, because many such marked objects will get no reaction from the camera until later parts of the scenario, when they become relevant to the current task at hand.

The dense nature of the game's map creates a lot of problems for pacing and signposting. Multiple puzzles, from different chapters of the game, might be present in the same space and could serve to interfere with one another or confuse the player.

This isn't to say that the puzzles are necessarily "bad". Once we realized that the house is littered with red herrings that don't become relevant until later, I actually started to like that these puzzles are a bit more complicated and multi-layered than the typical adventure game fare the we've been getting over the past decade or so. This was, in fact, a big reason why all 3 of us wanted to continue playing the game: we wanted to solve the next puzzle! So many adventure and horror puzzles these days don't get much more complicated than "open a drawer, find a key, and use said key on the one and only lock in that same room." They can feel so patronizing. MADiSON's puzzles definitely do not feel patronizing!

Many puzzles require careful observation and inferences from the environment.

Even if there is a simple clue like a color or a number that is given to the player, there is always some confounding additional factor. It's never just as simple as matching a number or a color or a shape. Most of these puzzles require some careful observation of the player's surroundings, some contextual inferences that won't be obvious to every player, and occasionally a lit bit of arithmetic, spatial, or logic skills. Playing this game in a group actually did help in this regard. Any one of us would have been stuck for a while on multiple puzzles, but there was always one of us who would pick up on a given clue and point it out to the others.

But some of the early puzzles, in particular, are a bit heavy on the red herrings and could definitely have used some better sign-posting and direction.

For example, my friends and I spent 30 minutes going around in circles immediately after picking up the camera and being locked in a small room. We found the camera sitting on a chair in the middle of the room which is surrounded by candles and blank polaroids (but we didn't know what the blank polaroids mean yet). The room also has a door with a combination lock, several empty spaces on the walls where picture frames used to be, a hole in one wall that allows the player to see into an adjacent room, a picture with a date written on the back, numbers and arithmetic expressions written all over the walls, and other details that could be interpreted as puzzles or clues. We thought maybe there would be a clue to the combination lock somewhere in the room, or visible in the adjacent room. First, we tried the year written on the back of the picture frame. When that didn't work, we spent far too long trying to take pictures of the empty photo frame spaces wondering if maybe some clue would show up in the polaroid, or trying to take a picture through the hole in the wall to better read the writing that is illegibly visible when peeking through the hole. None of this stuff proved fruitful.

The very first real puzzle of the game stumped us for over half an hour because of multiple red herrings.

The reason is because the combination lock isn't supposed to be opened this early. It's actually an end-game puzzle. In fact, it's the last puzzle of the game! This room will be visited at the end of the game, and the clues to the combination lock would be provided then. At the beginning of the game, after picking up the camera, you're simply expected to take a photo of the chair in the middle of the room, which will trigger a cutscene.

We figured that the camera would play into solving the puzzle, but we also assumed that the way out of the room was through the combo-locked door. We were expecting that the camera would somehow reveal the combination to the lock, but what the heck does the chair have to do with the locked door? Eventually, we did take a picture of the chair in the center of the room, because we'd taken a picture of everything else in the room. So why not the chair too?

We started to suspect that the presence of blank polaroids around an object might be a hint that we should take a picture of the object. But even that [correct] hypothesis was put into question early, when we didn't get any reaction to taking pictures of certain objects. For example, there's a deer head mounted prominently on the wall of a sitting room, which has blank polaroids stuck to the walls around it. We tried taking photos of it from several angles and distances, to no avail. We thought "OK, maybe the blank polaroids don't mean anything after all?" But they do. It's just that nothing happens unless you take the photo during the chapter of the game in which that particular puzzle is relevant. Bloodious could have just not put the blank polaroids there until the puzzle would actually work, but they decided to put them there from the start of the game, thus creating excess player confusion about whether they mean or do anything.

Photographable objects only do anything during their relevant chapters.

The dense map, and all these numerous irrelevant puzzles and red herrings really do not create a positive first impression for MADiSON.

Uncertain rules

Ironically (and surprisingly), these problems actually do manage to work in MADiSON's favor from time to time. MADiSON's juxtaposition of uncomfortable game design choices sometimes come together to create an effective horror atmosphere of uncertainty. It always leaves the player a little unsure about what's going to happen next, and surprising the player when that thing happens. Or, at least, that was the case with us.

First, there's a confusing combination of esoteric solutions, red herrings, and finicky triggers. Triggering certain events or puzzle solutions can often be exceedingly finicky. It may requires standing in a very narrow area of the environment, and pointing at a very specific pixel. If you're too close, or too far, or at the wrong angle, or aiming too high or too low, the game will often fail to trigger. This can leave the player wondering if we're on the right track or if there's something else we should be trying instead.

Sometimes this finicky nature of the puzzles actually does work out in the game's advantage. Repeatedly trying the same thing over and over again from different positions or angles can lull the player into a false sense of security and makes the action feel rote and mundane, until suddenly, I get the positioning just right and a jump scare triggers. Having been desensitized to nothing having happened in the previous attempts, these jump scares were some of the most effective in the game -- and some of the most effective jump scares of any game I've ever played. Yeah, they're kind of cheap (as jump scares always are, being that they are the lowest-hanging fruit of horror), but they accomplished their goal of making me jump out of my seat, and occasionally making my friend scream like a little girl.

Being desensitized by failing to trigger an expected jump scare, the actual jump scare was more effective.

There's also sequences in which the player seems to have to just wait a certain amount of time before something happens. The wait always seems to be just long enough that I start to feel like I should be doing something, and I start looking around for something I might have missed. But as soon as I move to start wandering or exploring, the next step of the sequence triggers. It's really uncomfortable as a player to be in these positions, but it does kind of work in a horror game setting. It has the effect of making me feel like I'm not fully in control, and keeps me a little bit uncertain about whether I'm doing the right thing or not.

I have no idea if these are deliberate elements of the game's design by Bloodious Games, or if they are all just happy accidents. I do lean towards them being deliberate, because it happens so often, and in so many different ways, that it seems like it probably isn't coincidence. But on the other hand, there are gameplay mechanics and elements of production design that do come off as indefensibly incompetent, and which make me wonder how much of this is intentional.

Small pockets

Aside from the counter-intuitive nature of the early, over-crowded puzzles that I discussed earlier, I think that the most incompetent decision made by Bloodious was the decision to include a limited inventory system. Like Visage, MADiSON attempts to re-introduce resource-management into survival horror by featuring a limited number of inventory slots and the ability to store items in a drop box. Unlike Visage, however, the resource constraints don't add anything to MADiSON's gameplay and only lead to annoyance rather than clever strategy or a build-up of tension. The designers of Visage were clever enough to include finite, consumable supplies. That game included a lighter with depleting fluid; medication for restoring player health; candles, light bulbs, and other resources that needed to be managed; all of which creates an element of strategy when deciding what to take with me, and under what conditions to use a particular item. The presence of stalking enemies in certain levels, and some mild sanity effects, added an element of danger to backtracking to swap out items or supplies.

Those considerations are simply not present in MADiSON. Every item in the game is a key or puzzle item. There's no healing items, no spare film reels for the camera, no light bulbs or candles for lighting dark places, or anything of the like. Everything that can be picked up is something that is used to progress the game (with only one notable exception, which will be made obvious by reading the achievement requirements). Which particular item to use becomes obvious once you have the item, so it's not like having to figure out which item to use ever becomes a puzzle in and of itself. Leaving behind such an item will only mean that you'll run into a roadblock later in the game and have to waste time backtracking to reclaim it. There's also no real enemies or combat (aside from maybe 2 setpieces later in the game), so there's no threat or danger inherent to backtracking. It is, literally, just a waste of the player's time.

There is no real justification for MADiSON to have a limited inventory.

Furthermore, half of the player's inventory is consumed by critical items that cannot be removed! This includes the camera, a notebook, and your collection of polaroid photos. So we don't really have 8 inventory slots; we really only have 4 or 5 useable slots.

The inventory limitations also become even more aggravating when you realize that you're carrying multiple tools that could effectively be used to solve a given problem, but the game still requires that you backtrack to the safe to find the one item that is specifically required. Like, a hammer could be just as effective at prying a plank loose as a crowbar would be. But no, you have to get a crowbar, because ... you know ... "video game logic".

Eyes and ears

MADiSON can also be excessive in both its visual and audio design. There's a ridiculous amount of camera sway, which leads to a lot of fighting with the camera to interact with certain objects or puzzles. So many objects and prompts in the game require near pixel-level perfection, and so hovering the cursor over the prompt can be a trial in itself. Maybe it's easier with a mouse on the PC, but we were playing with a PS5 gamepad. This is yet another uncomfortable element of game design that makes the player wonder if I'm doing the right thing, or if this particular prompt simply cannot be clicked. Yet this doesn't contribute to any sense of horror or tension; it's just frustrating -- or maybe funny if you're backseat gaming and watching a friend struggle just to click on that prompt that's right there in the middle of the screen.

The default controls also put the "interact" action on the PS5's X button. This made opening doors a real pain in the ass in the opening minutes of the game, because opening a door requires holding the "interact" button, while also pulling or pushing the right analog stick -- you know, the same right analog stick that is used by the thumb that is currently holding down the X button. Eventually, we went to the settings to see if we could re-map the controls, and found that the right trigger is also used as a redundant "interact" button. No actual button re-mapping was required, and we just went through the rest of the game using the trigger as the "interact" button. In the end, it was a "no harm, no foul" kind of issue, but it's yet another issue that made the opening hour or so of the game feel way more annoying and frustrating than it needed to be, as we repeatedly hit X in front of doors and wondered why they wouldn't open.

Hours into the game, the protagonist is still acting shocked and clueless regarding what is going on.

I also think that the sound designers went a bit overboard with the ambient sound effects. The occasional creak or groan of the house, or static from a TV or radio is fine. But it isn't enough for MADiSON, as this game will also throw in more overt sounds like loud footsteps or doors creaking open or closing. These sorts of things could be creepy or frightening if used sparingly and only in certain circumstances. But if you stand still for a minute or two (which we did often while trying to figure out what the heck to do next), you'll hear these ambient sounds repeat in the background on an endless loop, which can quickly be desensitizing. Having the sound of opening and closing doors being a random ambient effect is also annoying in a game in which doors opening or closing off-screen is supposed to be a spooky effect. When it happens, I don't notice or care because I keep hearing the sound even when doors aren't mysteriously opening or closing.

The protagonist's voice acting is also so dumb. I'm not usually one to complain about bad voice acting (heck, sometimes I even defend it). But this is bad. The delivery of any given line, in a vacuum, actually sounds fine and isn't really the problem; the problem is that the protagonist delivers every single line with the exact same faux-panicked tone and cadence. He always sounds like everything he says is the scariest revelation ever. He comes off as completely clueless, even after the spooky stuff has long since become mundane to the player. Imagine playing Resident Evil, and the player character has an anxiety attack every time they turn a corner to see a zombie -- even if it's like the hundredth zombie that they've killed. That's what the protagonist of MADiSON sounds like.

The protagonist's dialogue is so bad,
Bloodious allows players to disable it.

The developers apparently also realized how bad the protagonist's voice acting is, because they include an option in the game's setting to turn his dialogue off completely. As silly as he sounds, I'm still not sure that I would recommend turning his dialogue off, since I think he mumbles some clues for puzzles and progression, so turning him off might leave you wondering where to go or what to do.

Thankfully, his dialogue sub-titles will still show on screen, even if his actual audio is muted. So it comes off more as the player's own inner monologue. However, I still recommend leaving the dialogue on for a first playthrough, as it can be easy to miss subtitle text if you're focusing on something else going on, especially since the subtitle text doesn't stand out very well against many environmental backdrops, and I didn't see an option to add any sort of backing block or shadow to help make the text more legible against white, yellow, or orange backgrounds. Having the audible dialogue at least means you have 2 senses that can possibly pick up on a given clue or instruction, and your ears might pick up a clue that was illegible in the subtitle.

As for the story itself, I will say that I was pleased with the direction that it goes. So many indie horror games over the past decade or so have fallen into the frustrating trap of following tired horror game cliches -- cliches that were popularized by a certain gold-standard of introspective psychological horror from 2001. MADiSON seems like it might go in this direction as well, but then goes all-in on demonic possessions and occult rituals. It's a refreshingly straight-forward, and kind of old-fashioned, horror plot.

That isn't to say that it's easy to follow along. The relationships between certain characters or events, and the timeline of events can be a bit tough to keep track of. I finished the game with [I think] a solid grasp on what was going on with Madison and Luca. But I admit that I didn't quite understand how Blue Knees and Hans fit into everything. Part of this might be that we played the game in 3 sessions spread across almost 3 months. Had we played through the whole game in a single weekend (or a single session), with everything more fresh in our memories, perhaps the plot would have been easier to follow.

Rough, but effective

As with a lot of small, indie games made by a couple people with virtually no budget, I'm pretty forgiving of MADiSON's many shortcomings. Some of it (like the controls) is just something that you'll get used to. Other things (like the obnoxious ambient noises) will just fade into the background. We even started to figure out some of the logic behind how Bloodious was designing their puzzles. It took like half the game! But we did finally start to figure things out.

I think I kind of liked MADiSON. But it's hard to recommend, because any recommendation has to be qualified by a lot of disclaimers. To get the most of MADiSON, you'll have to have a lot of patience and put up with a lot of nonsense before you get to the more creative and interesting content. People who don't like playing a game that fights against their every input will surely hate MADiSON. To them, I would recommend Visage instead.

I think Visage is a much more polished project that plays things a lot safer, and has a lot more gameplay variety. MADiSON, however, basically only has 1 gimmick. But it's not afraid to take risks with that one gimmick, push it as far as it can possibly go, and make the player uncomfortable and unsettled. Like with any project that is willing to take risks like this, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't.

MADiSON is a more straight-forward horror story than most contemporary indie horror games.

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Skyrim is the greatest time sink of a console generationSkyrim is the greatest time sink of a console generation07/24/2015 Skyrim is one of the biggest names of this console generation. It's already earned the status of "classic" in some circles. It's over three years old now, and I've been playing it (and its DLC) on my PS3 off and on for much of that time. I've been wanting to write a review, but I just never felt that I had progressed far enough...

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