Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Genre: Psychological Horror, Adventure, Mystery
Platform: Xbox Series X/S, PC
Age Rating: 18+
Release Date: 28/Jan/2021
Price: £41.74 (also available on Game Pass)
A code was provided for review purposes however the reviewer also purchased a copy of the game for themselves.
It All Starts With a Dead Girl…
It might seem a little early in the year for some horror, but after playing through the entirety of the psychological horror game, The Medium, I found it to be so much more. The Medium places you in the shoes of Marianne, a young woman able to commune with the dead and lost souls looking for a way to pass on. After the death of her adopted father, Marianne receives an ominous phone call. This leads her to the long-abandoned Niwa workers’ resort. Here she must face new threats in her pursuit of finding the truth about her past. What follows is a disturbing journey littered with secrets, revelations, and a horrific danger that will hunt you in this world, and the next.
A Compelling Narrative
What immediately stood out to me about The Medium was the game’s heavy focus on narrative. I found myself asking more and more questions the further I delved into the game’s story; and the more questions I had, the more desperate I was for answers. Marianne never feels like the thing that makes The Medium‘s story so engrossing, but as the game progresses, she quickly becomes a strong protagonist who’s memorable in her own right.
Despite there being little dialogue, Marianne is still given enough depth and personality to make you connect with her character. This is done through her empathetic interactions with others or even her quirky one-liners. The way she narrates parts of the story reveals more about her, but this feels largely unnecessary and unwarranted. All-in-all, Marianne is an essential part of the game’s enthralling mystery. Even if she never feels overly important, by the end, you’ll be sad to see your time together finish.
I was also amazed at how refreshing it was to play a linear, narrative-heavy single-player experience. A game that takes greater inspiration from gaming’s past than gaming’s present. Where you’ll find a lot of single-player games have incorporated an open or semi-open-world, The Medium embraces its linearity with pride, and so it should. The linear structure of the game felt like a break from the vast open-world RPGs of today. Where they offer an often overwhelming abundance of content, The Medium gives you comfortably sized environments to navigate. This is supplemented by a fascinating, well-written story that easily rivals some of the biggest titles of the last decade. The Medium is deserving of all the praise it can get.
The game overexaggerates a little when it comes to the abilities a medium actually has. Marianne can speak to spirits and freely walk among them in the spirit world. It is in Marianne’s ability to simultaneously walk between worlds that the game gets to show off its next-gen capabilities. Certain parts of the game split the screen as you play as Marianne in the material and spirit world simultaneously.
From a gameplay standpoint, this can be pretty jarring. Leaving you constantly looking between two halves of the screen looking for the next clue or item needed to progress. If like me, you’re someone who likes to find every little bit of information available, it can be dizzying having to keep your eyes constantly peeled on both sides of the screen so you don’t miss anything. There does come a point where you are able to simply switch between what world you are in. This allows you to easily navigate and take in either the material or spirit world without having the other attached to it like an unwanted Siamese twin.
The incorporation of this fairly simple concept makes for some really interesting and engaging gameplay. Each level helps you channel your inner detective as you hop between worlds to solve puzzles and uncover secrets that will help you learn more about what happened at the resort; and why there’s a little too much blood on the walls. The game’s spirit world has the added benefit of being more interactive than its material counterpart. Here Marianne can channel her spirit energy into a bright blast or a protective shield when the need arises.
Exploration is Key
The game is at its base just a lot of walking around and looking for things. It is that kind of deceptively simple gameplay that makes The Medium a delight to play. It’s a game that fosters and rewards curiosity, encouraging the player to explore every inch of space with the promise of hidden collectables and added bits of story that ultimately pull you deeper into its intriguing narrative experience.
Additionally, the decision to use fixed camera angles tends to be a hit or miss. It’s a great call back to classic games such as the original Resident Evil, whose influence is evident in this design choice. But more often than not it proves to be more frustrating than it needs to be. There were times where I’d enter a new area and have the camera change multiple times in quick succession because of the room I was in. This left me disorientated especially in darker areas while trying to remember where I saw a collectable or item. While not as beneficial as the team might’ve hoped, it’s a feature that makes The Medium feel that more unique.
From a technical standpoint, you can’t help but appreciate how well the guys over at Bloober Team have utilized the next-gen hardware available to them. The fact that the team was able to have two separate game worlds running side by side is beyond impressive, even if it does come across as a way of simply flexing the next-gen tech. This is evident when you encounter a split, as it’s a near-seamless transition moving from one to two worlds in real-time. To casual gamers, this won’t seem like much, but it is feat worth recognition.
While on the topic of the game’s technical merit, I can’t not mention how gorgeous and well-crafted the level design is in this game. The next-gen hardware of the Xbox Series X certainly helps this. The material world feels almost more terrifying than the spirit world, as you traverse the ruined Niwa resort with its dimly lit hallways and blood-spattered walls. As the night progresses throughout the story, the dormant facilities of the resort grow darker and darker, leading to points where you’re standing in pitch black rooms, armed only with a small flashlight that hardly lights up a doorway. The whole building is beyond sinister. When paired with the knowledge that something horrific happened there, it makes for an experience that is unnerving and disturbing, to say the least. You will be on edge even in the quietest of moments.
Beauty in the Beyond
The spirit world on the other hand is nowhere near as terrifying as its counterpart, but instead quite beautiful. The material world has you navigating a dark and spooky abandoned building, while the spirit world is a lot brighter. Hues of orange and red that shine through a light fog. While brighter, human husks and bone form the backbone of the walls and structures of the spirit world, along with faces frozen at the point of death.
Strange fluid (probably blood) lines the floors and strung up hides of human flesh block certain pathways. It’s quite a gory departure from the Niwa resort, but nowhere near as nerve-wracking. It’s a little like mixing Hell from DOOM with The Upside-Down from Stranger Things, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Where one world hogs all of the fear factor, the other is gruesomely gorgeous in its design. Both are a testament to the vision and creativity of the folks over at Bloober Team.
One question still remains; is The Medium scary? Sometimes yes, other times no. The game starts slow and surprisingly quite emotional before Marianne is suddenly met with a creepy paranormal experience, which quickly turns out to be rather wholesome. This off and on again means of creating tension is something that carries on throughout much of the game.
The game is very psychological in its horror in the sense that you’ll find yourself very tense even when nothing’s really going on. This is in big part due to its level design, but still great nonetheless. At the point in the game where you can sneak, I consciously remained sneaking for a good 10 minutes just to make sure nothing heard me. More often than not though, you’ll hardly need to, as the game’s far more like an eerie detective sim, than a nightmare-inducing march through hell. While a lot of the time I was sneaking for no reason, it shows that The Medium does an excellent job of building tension and maintaining it so that you never feel too safe. The real horror comes in when you meet the thing that makes you want to sneak around.
Early on, Marianne encounters what I can best describe as a nightmarish zombie angel. This creature is the biggest threat you’ll face in the game. It is abundantly clear that it would love to wear Marianne as a skinsuit, and by association, you. What follows is various encounters with the creature where you’ll have to sneak around and hold your breath so as it doesn’t come and wear you like the aforementioned suit. Its hideous appearance, low wailing voice, and your inability to defend yourself from it make every encounter with the monster a heart-racing experience that you’ll dread throughout the entire game.
At the end of the game’s final credits, you’ll be met by a message from Bloober Team saying how passionate they are about this game. That passion can be seen in every aspect of this standout next-gen title. The Medium is an unexpected gem. Its compelling narrative, masterful control over tone, and expertly crafted levels culminate into an unforgettable experience.
Rapid Reviews Rating
You can grab your copy of The Medium from the Microsoft Store here.
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.