REVIEW: ‘The Medium’ Captures You Until it Doesn’t (XSX)

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The Medium

The Medium is the latest psychological horror game from Polish studio Bloober Team. Known for its immersive games that span the woods, cyberpunk, and claustrophobic hallways, the team has expanded on its usual bag of tricks with the introduction of dual reality.

In The Medium, players will play as Marianne, a medium gifted with a number of psychic abilities. As her, you explore the real and spirit world both alternatively and simultaneously to uncover a dark mystery masked by disturbing secrets, sinister spirits, and devious puzzles only a medium can solve. To talk about the game’s story is hard, especially without giving spoilers.

The beginning of The Medium is centered on grief, with Marianne processing the death of someone close to her. This introductory level teaches the player how to interact with the environment, use their powers, and showcases how Marianne uses her gifts to help spirits leave our world. It also gives players their first glimpse into the other side of reality, the place where the spirits exist. It’s filled with fire and brimstone and all sorts of devilish aesthetics.

After the introduction, Marianne answers a call from a mystery man, bringing her to the abandoned Niwa Government Resort, where the bulk of the game takes place. With all the best horror elements an abandoned hotel can provide, your time at Niwa is spent exploring and learning about a long-buried tragedy. It’s a tragedy both personal and tied to the history of the place itself. To accomplish this, you must research the mystery, collecting notes and interacting with the shattered memories that linger in the rooms.

The dilapidated old resort is a hotbed of supernatural activity that rings through objects as echos that you can replay to piece together the pain that was experienced there. Each echo and supernatural element she experiences pushes Marianne to utilize her powers to discover hidden elements in the hotel. While her powers help her interact with the hotel, you also utilize the second reality to access areas obstructed in the material world by spirit walking – leaving your body stationary in the material world as you explore the spiritual one. This element of the game’s dual reality tells the story while using the mechanic to its fullest. Additionally, when fixing each of the memories that you come across adds to the dual reality as well by having Marianne interact with an object in the material world and then reconstruct it in the spiritual one.

The Medium

But the most important mechanic of the two worlds is that what happens to you in one world happens to you in the other. By breaking the barrier between them, and seeing it be broken, you realize that nowhere is safe from the Maw, the del Torian monster that stalks you through certain parts. While some will find the flashing transitions between worlds pleasantly unsettling, others may find it induces motion sickness, which was my experience. To be honest, while the dual reality is visually interesting and used to its fullest from a mechanics standpoint, the two simultaneous worlds being on the screen made it hard to play at times. For the cinematics, it adds awareness and eerie quality to the game, but for the gameplay itself, it’s slightly too distracting. When coupled with the transitions to the spirit world, it’s not the easiest to play.

That said, Bloober Team does a good job of not relying on the dual reality too much. Instead, The Medium balances the use of this element against traditionally effective and immersive techniques like lighting, shifting surroundings, and a static camera. The importance of the atmosphere in The Medium can’t be understated and every element of the level design and character design exists to push the fear and tension. From the limited field of vision to the small light attached to your chest, your knowledge of your surroundings is limited. Even when walking down narrow hallways, there are elements that remain unseen.

Additionally, the phenomenal score and sound design by Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka and his team is unmatched. Much of the heart-racing moments of The Medium come in the moments immediately before the scare. The score keeps you on edge, pushing you further and further, and that is thanks to Yamaoka’s talent. But the immersion doesn’t stop there. With minimal UI, The Medium plays nearly uninterrupted by the traditional displays. The only time your playthrough features elements on the screen that aren’t a part of the game world is when you come within proximity of an item to interact with.

I want to make it clear that as a horror game, The Medium succeeds in its gameplay, its score, and its claustrophobic atmosphere. In fact, there are small things your character has to interact with that are truly unnerving—namely cutting through flaps of skin to access restricted areas with a barber blade. Yup. You do that. In fact, The Medium is the blend of the best elements of Bloober Team games when it comes to horror. The shifting and changing horror in hallways from Layers of Fear and the uncertainty and tension of making your way through a dark forest from Blair Witch come together in natural synchronicity. But when it comes to the story, there are some stumbles.

Content Warning: This section of the review contains light spoilers for the plot of The Medium and a discussion of sexual abuse.

the medium

The start of The Medium deals with how we bury our trauma and how we survive it. It makes us go through the pain of discovering the darkness in others’ pasts and in Marianne’s past. But this is where the trigger warning featured at the beginning of the game on the loading screen comes into play. While the vagueness of the trigger warning at the start of the game notes that there will be dark themes but doesn’t state what those themes are.

As the game says, “It all starts with a dead girl.” But as it develops, we don’t know which one. The truth is that as Marianne you must uncover and reconstruct the abuse of a child at the hands of her mentor. This is a large part of the game. This topic and element is handled tastefully and executed in a way to showcase trauma and not sensationalize it, but it’s important that the theme be explained and pointed out to those getting ready to play the game. Because Marianne has to piece together the memories, as vague as they are, the player cannot escape the trauma.

Sadly, the way that The Medium confronts this topic and trauma itself loses its importance when we spend the next level as a The Troubled Man, walking through the trauma of the man who molested the young girl. This line is blurry when it comes to telling his story. It verges on apologetics and is just a hard part of the game to get through. Beyond that, the focus on trauma and the deep story that begins at the start of the game shifts quickly and we find ourselves in a story that is more about secret government organizations and the monsters they hold. Horror is a powerful tool for unpacking trauma, and this is something that Bloober Team did well in their last title, Blair Witch. That said, a nuanced take on trauma isn’t present here, or at least, it’s lost in the mess of intrigue and drama.

Watching the trauma amount to just a little more than a red herring is frustrating. While the gameplay itself maintains an immersive nature and is good, the story begins to lose any hold it had on me. We begin to focus on familial elements and government testing and just end up deflating any emotional buy-in I had in the game. This turn in the last third of the game frustrating, mainly because of how heavy the subject matter is at the midpoint.

Overall, The Medium is a great game, when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts the game is superb. It’s scary, it’s visceral, and it showcases how Bloober Team understands horror and how to execute concepts unrestricted by location. That said, its story is less than stellar, but at 8-10 hours of gameplay, with its fantastic cinematics, it’s a hurdle you can get over.

The Medium is available on January 28, 2021 on Xbox Series S|X and PC – available on Game Pass day one.

The Medium
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

Overall, The Medium is a great game, when it comes to the actual nuts and bolts the game is superb. It’s scary, it’s visceral, and it showcases how Bloober Team understands horror and how to execute concepts unrestricted by location. That said, its story is less than stellar, but at 8-10 hours of gameplay, with its fantastic cinematics, it’s a hurdle you can get over.