The landscape for video game psychological horror changed forever in 2014 when P.T., the interactive teaser for a Silent Hill game that never came, arrived on the PlayStation Store. Since then there’s been an overwhelming amount of similar games released, ranging from direct clones to the creatively inspired. Fortunately, from what I’ve seen so far of Madison — the latest horror game in this unnerving lineage — has just enough unique ideas to creep terrifyingly into the latter.
Much like P.T., Madison is a first-person psychological horror set within the now-familiar surroundings of an oddly designed home, its rooms tormented by general horribleness. You play as Luca, a helpless and terrified protagonist exploring his now haunted family home armed only with a Polaroid camera.
One of the first things I noticed about Madison is its attention to detail in both the layout and visual design of the environments. The history of Luca’s family covers the walls, each one extensively decorated with picture frames, newspaper clippings, and hidden messages. Every room contains draws and cupboards to rifle through, and potential solutions that will aid in escaping this nightmare. And boy, let me tell you, there’s lots of nightmare fuel.
Across four hours of play (which I believe to be roughly half of the game) I experienced not only my fair share of demon-based jump scares but also the consistent sense of dread you’ve come to expect from the P.T.-like subgenre. There was never a corner I turned where I wasn’t expecting the next haunting flash of something lurking in the dark, even if that moment never came. The general sense of eeriness has been masterfully achieved by the small Argentinian studio Bloodious Games, particularly in Madison’s smaller moments. The endless audio teases of something lurking unseen in the environment with you, or the moving of a statue when you least expect it, constantly keeps you on edge.
Despite all this impressive polish and detail, though, it could be easy to dismiss Madison as being just another in the long line of identikit psychological horror games that regularly arrive on Steam. Fortunately, Bloodious Games has a couple of ideas that will hopefully help it stand out from the crowd. As mentioned earlier, Luca comes equipped with an instant camera which works as a device to reveal elements of the world that can’t be seen with the naked eye. For example, a quick snap of a pentagram-like symbol on the wall might reveal hidden clues to a lock puzzle, or even trigger the environment to alter in some way. As my playthrough progressed, the camera’s abilities broadened to become a device that could even help Luca travel to different time periods. It leaves me excited for what other creative uses this trusty little Polaroid could have in the rest of the game.
But perhaps the most exciting element of the camera is not its puzzle-solving abilities, but how it can be used as a tool to explore the most terrifying areas of the house. You won’t be surprised to hear Madison is full of dark corners and ambiguous shadows, and unfortunately, Luca doesn’t own a flashlight. As such, you become reliant on the camera’s flash to cut through the darkness. There’s a fantastic, ongoing sense of dread as you slowly creep around each room, rhythmically flashing your camera to create one precious second of light and then painfully waiting for the photograph to develop so that you can see what’s ahead before proceeding. It’s a credit to the game that every dark corner feels like it could be concealing the next frightening experience. You’re always reaching for that camera, and each click feels in equal parts like a respite and the start of a new terror as you nervously wait and shake to see what develops.
Despite obviously wearing its P.T.-style psychological horror elements on its sleeve, Madison also appears to share common ground with Resident Evil 7 thanks to some light survival horror elements. The lack of guns means you won’t be trying to carefully manage your ammunition counts, but Luca does have limited inventory space and you’ll regularly stumble upon safes to store your excess equipment in. As you might expect, these safes have magical properties that transport your items from lockbox to lockbox, akin to the Resident Evil storage boxes of the past.
I’m unsure that this horror trope is needed, though. The inventory management seems largely arbitrary rather than feeling like a vital mechanic, especially since three out of your eight inventory spots are already taken up by primary items that Luca refuses to deposit. The resource management in Resident Evil works because you’re always forced to consider what items will be most valuable to you in the next room. Do you need to stock up on health, or is ammo more important? This is often a choice between life and death. In Madison, though, it basically boils down to which puzzle do you want to solve first, creating busy work for the player without any real risk or reward. Perhaps this changes in the latter half of the game, but during the first hours, I couldn’t see any benefit in the system.
As for the items used in those puzzles, much like in Resident Evil there is the ability to inspect them and reveal a different item hidden within. But frustratingly, like point and click adventures of the past, there’s only ever one solution for each puzzle, even when a second, perhaps more logical one feels transparent. For example; early on in the game, I encountered a very feeble chain bolting down a toilet and with a two-pound claw hammer in my inventory it felt like there was a simple, real-world solution. But I suspect that’s more of an issue with my “If you got a hammer, smash it!” approach to life, coupled with puzzle frustration than a fault of the game design.
Amidst the overabundance of P.T. clones, Madison feels like it’s doing just enough to stand out from the pack. From what I’ve seen so far, its sense of space and dread are up there with the best, and the way the Polaroid camera connects to the exploration feels like a shrewd move in terms of helping it create its own identity. So much so that I’m now nervously excited to slowly approach Madison’s latter-game scares, flash my camera, develop the film, and see exactly what’s around that next corner.
Dale Driver is the UK Video Lead for IGN and a lifelong horror fan. Be thoroughly bored by following him on Twitter at @_daledriver.
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Author: Dale Driver