America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 07th Aug 2022 | 3,045 views
Unpleasing as it looks, there is justification for BLOODIOUS GAMES' first effort being titled MADiSON; that said, I'm undecided if it's really necessary. That's the main theme for the game itself too: understanding the intention behind its horror staples, yet unsure of their implementation. It practically announces templates that've recently picked up steam: P.T. homages and incorporating photography. Although it successfully avoids being a copycat, this confection of different ideas too often gets out of focus.
You wake up in a darkened room with bloody hands and your father banging on the door. “How could you do this?” and “You're not my son!” are just some of his muffled lines you catch while in an anxious, confused state. This bloodied-up, accused murderer's name is Luca. As you escape this room and venture into a nearby hallway, you happen upon his 16th birthday gift: a Polaroid camera. Armed with this, a journal, and an assortment of scavenged tools along the way, you must navigate this haunted house to learn its past and uncover Luca's role in what seems to be a satanic ritual.
Luca's camera is crucial to clearing virtually every obstacle in this haunted house. Take aim at an enigmatic engraving or a person's name and your screen temporarily shakes harder than Michael J. Fox in an earthquake, signaling you've uncovered a clue. A nice tactile touch is having to shake each Polaroid to see your work and potentially discover a supernatural secret embedded within the frame. BLOODIOUS gives a sound mechanical foundation in the first act and you're naturally interested to see how it's implemented.
Similarly, the tightly-confined hallways of this house find a balance between evoking dread and compelling you to see what's next. It's also impressively detailed for such a small core team. From bigger qualities such as the lighting tech to minute details like the detailed carvings of satanic symbols, a lot of work went crafting an unnerving atmosphere. Even small novelties, like a record tape in Luca’s hand magically playing back a local preacher's dire warning, capture the inherent strangeness of this place. And while you're distracted by the creepy sights, you're always within earshot of a creaky door opening outside of your vision.
More than making a commendable investment to be a horror game with actual production qualities, MADiSON sells this with its early level design. Given the intense nature of the first scene, there's surprisingly a more reserved tempo for the first act. It's not bereft of fun little jumps or playing with your sense of reality though. One of its favorite tricks is magically placing a large item (like a tall grandfather clock) when you're not looking. Some ideas don't really land, but the variety of situations and the focus on players internalizing the layout succeeds in building up genuine trepidation.
It's worth noting that these praises – which caught me by surprise – are mostly focused on the first two hours. While having a few issues anyway, that good start eventually loses its luster.
One frequent quibble that boggles my mind is the constant head-bobbing. BLOODIOUS put time in enabling you to mute the querulous protagonist (which was obviously Jacob Judge's first notable voice acting gig), but currently demands you saunter about like you're half-drunk throughout the entire game. It's also quite disappointing with regards to performance. For a game with an Xbox Series version, and typically inhabiting tight spaces, I can't believe the frequency of odd visual stutters and framerate drops. It's not plagued with technical errors, but there are enough to wonder if another delay should've happened.
Beyond those gripes, one overarching problem stems back to its over-investment in the opening act; it's almost like BLOODIOUS' anathema towards Steam refunds drove the developer to maintain a façade as much as possible. Granted, it's a nice façade, but there are still 4-5 more hours to fill. While several puzzles are diminished by poor sign-posting, a few do a commendable job of playing with what Luca sees and the supernatural secrets exclusively uncovered through photos. An expansive puzzle where you navigate different epochs of a Catholic church was among my favorite examples.
A similar issue with its middle and end is the law of diminishing scare returns. It's a shame too because MADiSON is capable of solid scares and subversions. I tensed up and audibly said “nope... nuh uh...” after seeing a frozen figure at the end of a hallway, which turned out to be a great visual trick. Early on, most ingredients feel properly measured: atmosphere is being built in tandem with the various puzzles – regardless of inconsistent sign-posting. The reserved (dare I say arthouse?) beginning eventually gives way to a heavier stream of cheaper jump scares.
It's also disappointing in that each “Monster of the Week” is afforded a backstory and proper development, but their design feels too loosey-goosey. Some successful kills felt cheap because the rules weren't always followed. Hell, one time the final boss phased into the room before I could even react. Much of their bite is lost by recycling the same trick and not properly handling their design.
“Mixed bag” is an overused term, but it appropriately maps onto BLOODIOUS' foundation. Even ancillary components like Luca's carry limit (8 items max) and stowing excess stuff in a locker speaks to this... hesitancy of how to grapple its own ideas and inspirations. Your backpack can carry any 8 items, so it doesn’t have the cost/benefit dynamic like some Resident Evil titles; conversely, there were only a couple of instances where item limits interrupted me, so it felt like more of a random nuisance I was reminded of than a crucial piece of its gameplay identity.
The BLOODIOUS team surprised me in two disparate ways: how hooked I was to the start and how often they lost me as time went on. It's akin to a house that's improperly built despite having a solid blueprint.
Although there are odd ups and downs, MADiSON's story at least avoids many flagrant missteps. Outside of Jacob Judge's mediocre performance, the rest of the supporting cast hit their respective roles. Presentation in general hits its marks by juggling various eras and subtly incorporating them within the world. Old slides present a brief history of Luca's father's pastime in the house, a CRT TV explains Madison Hale's grisly ritualistic murders, and so on. They're more than just old-timey, well-detailed baubles to appreciate; they're also great ways to flesh out the roster of side characters and villains.
Focusing more on the script, it's a serviceable yarn with an emphasized focus on legacy. The demonic possession A plot hits many of the expected notes: assuming responsibility to expiate this tormenting spirit, requiring specific sacraments as an offering, and... you probably know the rest. Despite being so typical, credit is due to its more inspired detours. Because of how often it leans into supernatural mind-fuckery, it's impressive how natural and expected it was to be magically transported to different locations and time periods. The way everything is technically connected to this house clicked right into place.
Like most horror media, it can't avoid common issues like a tawdry ending or questionable protagonist motivations. Even with rifling through most of its collectibles, some explanations feel too vague or abstract just for the sake of it. Warts and all though, it still did just enough to keep my attention.
For a freshman developer, BLOODIOUS GAMES earns credit for harnessing and playing around with some horror staples. Since my initial expectations were measured, I was impressed with how engaging it felt, but then it eventually starts recycling ideas and prying in unnecessary distractions. Imagine MADiSON akin to liking a nice picture that's out of focus: there's still a special attribute for genre fans to appreciate, but others will be put-off by the inconsistent craftsmanship.
Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.