Reviewed on Xbox Series X
The Medium is a game with a lot of interesting ideas hell bent on fulfilling the promise to take advantage of the power of next generation Xbox hardware. A lot of the ideas land, but some issues linger that make for an inconsistent journey through its world.
Both of them, in fact.
The Medium is an interactive storytelling/action horror game where you play as Marianne, a Medium who can see both our world, in all of it’s grim and depressing reality, and the spirit world, which unfortunately seems a little worse for wear. It is a horror game first and foremost and focuses on an unsettling and mysterious tale that spans anywhere from 6 to 8 hours.
The Medium has a lot of interesting ideas and is able to pull some of them off. Thanks to the fixed camera angles and somewhat janky control scheme, it reminds one of a somewhat modernised point and click game, except without the pointing or clicking. Old-school Resident Evil fans may feel right at home here.
What makes this game unique is the dual realities where Marianne explores the world. For most of the game you will spend time in the regular world, where you will explore abandoned buildings and unsettling locations. Other portions of the game will have you exploring the spirit world, which is essentially a mirror of our reality, where everything is crumbling and fading away into gloom and mist, with hues of orange and brown. The game becomes truly unique when the game splits realities in real time, rendering both split screen style, and you are able to navigate them simultaneously.
This unusual approach creates unique gameplay opportunities, where you will have to solve a puzzle in one reality to be able to advance in both. These puzzles are fairly simple, like having to turn the power on in one reality to open the gate for the other.
While being able to exist in two worlds at once, I can’t help but come away from the Medium feeling like this unique design decision wasn’t used to its full potential. Being able to play in two realities is really neat, but it never advances past that point from a gameplay perspective. The game never pushes or challenges you with this mechanic, and aside from that initial “this is neat” feeling, it doesn’t quite feel like the team at Bloober thought of ways to make the mechanic interesting beyond its initial premise.
Whether you are in the real world, the spirit world, or both; the atmosphere in the game is always great – unsettling, uncomfortable ambience with an excellent soundtrack to boot. The game pushes that persistently unsettling tone throughout, rather than the usual tropes of jump scares and so on, and it works to the games advantage.
The game feels constantly oppressive and the persistent ‘wrongness’ exists even in areas where nothing is really happening. A mix of great looking environments, good sound design, and an excellent synth-horror soundtrack make The Medium a genuinely goosebump inducing game at times.
While you are exploring these haunted areas you will do what you do in most games of this style; look at a lot of objects. Each room tends to have a few of these curios knocking about, adding some nice back story and depth to the environments you explore and the overall story.
Some objects are even haunted in a way, holding an echo of energy from spirits who are attached to the item. You can think of these as ‘ghost audio logs’, where you hear some backstory from a life long since past, connected to this physical remnant, long untouched.
Besides looking at things, you’ll sometimes solve puzzles too. These puzzles are okay. They are made more interesting and go beyond ‘okay’ when you are splitting realities and having to solve something in one world to move forward in another, but the puzzles themselves are not particularly innovative. This of course, is not necessarily a game breaker, but considering puzzles are the height of the gameplay experience, it does strike me as a bit of a problem.
While it is genuinely enjoyable to explore the environments and parse through the history of this world through the items left behind, the atmosphere is sometimes completely ruined by Marianne’s insistence on commenting on everything. Marianne is narrating the entire story, and that means commenting almost non-stop. Almost anytime you enter a room, or pick up an item, or look at a clue, your character will make sure to explain what is happening.
It feels a little like Bloober Team is afraid that you will miss something and wants to ensure you never feel confused or at a loss -and that’s a shame. The voice of Marianne, Kelly Burke, does a great job overall, but the over-the-top narration soon becomes distracting. I wish the developers had exercised a little more restraint and let the atmosphere wash over me instead of hitting me over the head with an exposition hammer.
Exploring in The Medium is enjoyable, but the game doesn’t want you to feel comfortable for long. There is an enemy that is introduced about an hour into the game that becomes a persistent presence throughout. The Maw is a genuinely terrifying enemy in both appearance and voice. It’s design is one of the more unique and disturbing creatures I have seen in a horror game, and the voice-over from none other than Troy Baker is genuinely great.
This enemy can be compared somewhat to the Alien in Alien Isolation or Mr. X in Resident Evil 2. Unfortunately, the AI routines behind this fearsome fellow don’t feel nearly as clever as either, and sadly, the encounters are not nearly as interesting.
Running into the Maw was certainly unnerving but generally fairly easy to evade. A few times I was even able to simply run past him as he was too slow to react. Once you figure out his patterns you shouldn’t have too much challenge, and that’s a shame, as we’ve seen a persistent, unstoppable force work wonders on everyone’s heartrates.
Exploring and hiding from the Maw is made a little less enjoyable due to fixed camera angles and associated controls, that for most, may feel outdated. This style of game has never been particularly famous for having the tightest controls, but The Medium in particular doesn’t feel very responsive to my input. As a result, it feels the gameplay is carried by The Medium’s story and atmosphere, rather than exceptional game design.
The Medium has a lot of good ideas that come together in a mixed bag of a game. I found the story to be involving and well written; the atmosphere and ambience unnerving. The environments are often hauntingly beautiful to look at, and the soundtrack is a genuine highlight.
The good in this game is forced to carry you through the bad, which in some ways, is the gameplay itself, where a lack of challenging puzzles, a shallow yet innovative dual reality mechanic, and an over reliance on exposition pull you out of the detailed and interesting story Bloober are trying to tell.
The Medium is then, perhaps, a victim of its own gimmick – a game of two halves, one full of detail and intrigue, the other somewhat lost in the gloom of the veil.