The Ring. The Grudge. Mama. The Cell.
Since this is a game review, let’s name drop a few others:
Silent Hill. Alan Wake. Condemned. FEAR.
If any of these names stir up feelings of skin-crawling satisfaction, tonally-similar The Medium needs to be on your Must Play list. Out this week for PC and Xbox Series X|S, this new third-person psychological horror game is moody, frequently disturbing, and highly cinematic.
In The Medium, you play as Marianne, a powerful psychic who acts as a bridge between the real world and its dark mirror equivalent, the spirit realm. Marianne can exist in both planes simultaneously, and until you step into her shoes, the young woman has primarily used her “gift” to help souls move on. A mysterious phone call, though, on the worst day of her life, promises answers, about Marianne’s gifts, and a lifelong vision that has plagued her – of a girl being murdered. That means heading to the abandoned forest resort of Niwa, a place with a bloody past, and as many secrets as anguished ghosts. Oh, and a ravenous “something” that continues to prowl the ruins.
Mature-minded, sophisticated horror
The Medium is hands down the most sophisticated effort yet from Bloober Team, the Polish developers who’ve made their name with horror games like Layers of Fear, Observer (rereleased last year as a next-gen Redux) and Blair Witch. Bloober’s latest is mature and polished in every department.
The Medium doesn’t resort to jump scares, choppy editing or lengthy wades through sordid torture porn territory. It avoids cheap gimmicks to shock and frighten. Instead, the game offers horror for grown-ups. It’s subtle terror slowly seeps through your skin over 10 hours of playtime that relentlessly exposes you to a chilling atmosphere and nightmarish visuals. It’s recommended that you experience the game in the dark with gamepad and headphones. The latter is to really appreciate the game’s unnerving sound design.
The Medium is also as much about supernatural horror as its grubby, grounded human equivalent – the awful things done to the vulnerable in society. The game opens with a trigger warning for good reason.
At the same time, The Medium leaves a lot unsaid, and avoids easy answers. Although this explanatory “hands-off” approach can be frustrating in a few key instances, it otherwise gives the player the space to construct their own meaning, and form their own judgements. These are based primarily on found letter fragments and emotionally-charged items that Marianne can use her insight ability to tap into, in order to access embedded memories.
Gameplay and graphics
Insight is one of the key gameplay mechanics in The Medium, helping to layer the story, and guide players through the labyrinth that is Niwa. Marianne can also enter an out-of-body state for short bursts of time, where her white-haired spirit-self passes through real-world obstacles to locate solutions that will let her bypass physical barriers. These solutions include finding spirit wells that equip spirit-Marianne with energy to defend herself against deadly swarms of moths, and other dangers in the shadow universe.
The Medium is far from an action game, though, if you think you’re just going to blast your way out of trouble. A handful of chase sequences provide a hypodermic jab of adrenalin. However, reflecting the game’s mature nature, the emphasis is on slow-burn discovery and puzzle solving, with some stealth sections.
It’s the quieter moments where The Medium’s real-time dual-reality gameplay – touted as the game’s “innovative trademark feature” – takes centre stage. The split-screen effect is visually impressive, but it’s on rails for the most part, and only in effect for about one-third of the game, including a chunk of cut scenes. The player can’t ever activate it at will.
Speaking of visuals, this review playthrough of The Medium took place on a PC set-up in the Recommended bracket. Making a pleasant change, it was a smooth-running experience, without a single major glitch.
On Xbox Series X, we experienced one complete crash while in the pause menu, some niggles with Quick Resume, and graphical issues in character faces during certain cutscenes. Otherwise, in fellow reviewer Kervyn’s own words, “The rest of the time the game ran splendidly and can be a real looker in some scenes.”
Light, dark and Polish-ed pleasures
There are many pleasures to be uncovered in The Medium. Helping to modulate the mood is Marianne herself. Despite her alienating abilities, the game’s protagonist is no Debbie Downer. She’s likeable and compassionate, and treats her lifelong “gifts” with pragmatism. In her hellish surroundings, she occasionally jokes around to relieve tension, nicknaming the bolt cutters that prove so useful when facing multiple padlocked doors.
Marianne is so relatable that it’s unwelcome when you’re forced to play as a second character for a few stages. This character, who is evidently being set up for a sequel or spinoff, shows a different side to medium powers, but they feel more like a generic antihero, and you don’t form an emotional connection to them. This character doesn’t leave as much of an impression as Marianne. Neither do they come close to the memorability of Troy Baker’s villain, an entity that is undiluted nightmare fuel – in both vocal performance, and creature design seemingly straight out of a Guillermo del Toro film.
Another of the most enjoyable things about The Medium is that it is distinctly Polish, which freshens up proceedings. The voiceovers may be American, but The Medium’s universe is rooted in the unique history and socio-economic context of Poland (Bloober Team is based in Krakow). Set in 1999, events in The Medium are positioned closer to Poland’s Communist past, allowing the Soviet and preceding Nazi occupation to impact the storyline in Chernobyl-esque ways. As an example, Niwa isn’t a luxury resort like The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, but a utilitarian holiday destination to reward working families loyal to the People’s Republic.
The Eastern European emphasis extends beyond the narrative to the game’s visual style. The real-life mirroring is obvious, but the spirit world’s desiccated landscapes – littered with bones, contorted figures, and doorways strung with human skin – have been inspired by the work of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. It’s satisfying to play something with such a consistent “home-grown” focus that takes you beyond typical Western and English-language settings.
The Medium isn’t without its issues, however. Some frustrations from earlier Bloober games make a reappearance. Possibly the biggest gripe is the return of an auto save system that flings save points as much as 10 minutes apart. With Xbox Quick Resume it’s less of an issue, but on PC you can’t just close your game willy-nilly. And with saves points spaced so widely, you’ll likely find yourself replaying significant stretches when you inevitably fail unforgiving stealth and chase sections.
Making the latter particularly challenging is The Medium’s semi-fixed cameras. You’ll likely have mixed feelings about these static viewpoints, that switch as characters move across environments. On the one hand, it gives The Medium a strong filmic feel, while stirring memories of horror game classics like the original Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark. On the other hand, this old school approach takes some getting used to, and can be hellishly frustrating when you’re being pursued through narrow passageways.
Still, apart for a couple of scenes, The Medium can’t be called difficult. You’ll be playing – and probably replaying – the game to immerse yourself in its potent atmosphere, and to get a better grip on a compelling story that likes to slip from your grasp. At the same time, the mix of gameplay elements, Marianne’s evolving mission, and game length just keep things from feeling samey.
After the year-end glut of boisterous open-world games that demand at least 50 hours of investment, The Medium is a palate cleanse. It’s a bite-size block of 85% cacao chocolate; dark, bitter, with a taste that lingers.
The Medium is available from January 28 for Xbox Series X|S consoles and PC via Steam, Epic Games Store, and the Microsoft Store. It’s also a day one release on Xbox Game Pass.
Last Updated: January 27, 2021