Bloober Team has developed a reputation in recent years for creating psychological horror games. Most of these have a walking simulator feeling to them, but with The Medium, the studio has abandoned that model.
Unlike Layers of Fear and Observer, this Xbox console exclusive is a third-person title, reminiscent of iconic Japanese horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil.
With such high-caliber inspiration, The Medium certainly has a lot to live up to. For the most part, it is somewhat lacking compared to the best examples of the genre currently available. But that’s not to say that it does not have some redeeming features.
Although it does not start at the Niwa Workers’ Resort, most of the action in The Medium takes place there. Once a holiday park during the Communist occupation of Poland, it is the site of a terrible massacre years before the events of the game.
The protagonist, Marianne, sets out for Niwa after receiving a mysterious call from a man. He promises to reveal the true nature of her powers as a medium and explain a recurring dream. From there, the narrative branches out into discovering why this man wants Marianne at Niwa and what really happened there.
The Medium also tackles some very sensitive subjects. While there is good reason to do so in some cases, the game does so with little nuance or care. It seems like things such as torture, terrible scientific experiments, and child abuse are included simply to be shocking.
There are also some plot twists that are hard to see coming but don’t really affect the narrative all that much. This might be a result of the developer trying to cram so many different controversial themes into a relatively short campaign. At around a dozen hours, there’s little time to properly explore these concepts and their lasting effects.
The end result is a narrative that seems compelling from the outset but soon loses its focus. Simply keeping track of everything that is going on can be difficult. For many, the results of putting in the effort of uncovering the entire story will not be worth it. Especially when The Medium has the habit of introducing interesting characters and then almost immediately discarding them.
What sets The Medium apart from other psychological horror games is the fact that it is played within two different worlds. Players don’t simply switch between the two different realms, both are played simultaneously. Being able to inhabit both worlds like this creates some interesting gameplay moments. Players are able to solve puzzles in unique ways and essentially interact with themselves.
Players can interact with the world using a number of different abilities. Insight allows users to see objects that they can actually interact with. Meanwhile, a variety of spirit-based skills let Marianne get past demons or start generators. The issue is, all of these feel rather rudimentary. They would not feel all that out of place in a game that is a decade old. The Medium is a fresh next-gen title but it rarely feels like it when playing.
Mechanics like Insight also have problems, with many highlighted items looking indistinguishable from other objects. This can lead to frustrating moments where you are stuck looking for the correct item to move forward.
Another big problem for many gamers will be the distinct lack of scares. While players don’t expect jump scares from psychological horror games, there still have to be some terrifying moments. The Medium tries to do this with the themes it explores. But because it fails to delve into them significantly enough, the true horror of them is lost.
The Medium gets across the pain and suffering that happened at Niwa exceptionally well. The deserted resort, with its wrecked and empty facilities, is a constant reminder of the massacre that took place. Meanwhile, the spirit world takes another method for demonstrating the evil there. Every surface is covered in horrific monstrosities like tentacles and sharp teeth coming out of the walls and floors. The Medium also excels when it comes to cinematography. The fixed camera really allows the developer to create striking shots.
The sound design in The Medium has been widely touted as one of its best elements. Bloober Team has said the audio was done by a “Silent Hill dream team.” This includes composer Akira Yamaoka, singer Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, and noted voice actor Troy Baker. All three of these individuals have had significant roles in previous Silent Hill games. The end result is a game that sounds great, with good voice acting and a nostalgic soundtrack.
However, one strange decision with the sound is that everyone speaks with an American accent. Considering that the game takes place in Poland, it’s odd to experience this. The overall atmosphere and immersion suffer as a result, with it being difficult to fully believe the setting. Granted it’s a small issue, although it does seem like something that could have really added to the world-building and believability of Niwa.
Like many of Bloober Team’s other releases, The Medium has a solid enough concept. The idea of playing through a game with dual worlds is interesting; it has just been implemented in a messy way.
The meandering and difficult-to-follow story doesn’t help, either. Without a compelling story to keep the action flowing, The Medium fails to keep you engrossed. The lack of any real scary moments will also be a big turn-off for many. Especially when Bloober Team’s other games have all done this so well.