Developed by: Bloober Team
Published by: Bloober Team SA
Platforms: Xbox Series X/S (Series S Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now!
Sometimes, you just get a feeling from a trailer or pre-release marketing that a game may resonate with you. For example, I recall it happening for Celeste, and now it has occurred again with The Medium, an Xbox console exclusive that kicks off the year in style; intriguingly, it is currently quite a unique case in that there is no Xbox One last-generation version, due to the demands the dual-reality mechanic places on the hardware – a mechanic central to how effective I found The Medium in gameplay and narrative. Curiously, my time with the game felt distinctly new, even when I was recognising clear intertextual links to other art. It seems evident to me that player approach is also key to how much you get out of The Medium, which – despite some rough edges – is packed full of atmospheric character drama that impacted me to a level few games do.
Two Sides to Every Story
The premise of The Medium is quite contained, yet packed with complexities. You play as main character Marianne (Kelly Burke), a medium – someone with inherent psychic abilities that allow them to access the real world and the concurrent spirit world, with the game sometimes presenting this in various splitscreen arrangements (much more on this later). Whilst each reality has a similar layout, the spirit world is coated in a very different aesthetic, fiery orange and evidently, often unsettlingly, organic – Polish studio Bloober Team have been very transparent in the inspiration drawn from a famous artist of the country, Zdzisław Beksiński, and you can see that influence in the colour palette and design of the spirit world; also, it is important to note the role of the often cold and barren real world locales in creating such a striking contrast.
We are delicately taught early on that alternate versions of ourselves reside in this mirrored existence; even if we pass away, a medium can make contact through meeting that other version. This is a sign of the way The Medium treats the dual realities; it is not quite so simple as a good world and a bad world – no, there is much background to each that I was delighted to see so carefully explored, with space to make your own interpretation of events. Such is the nature of the narrative that I am cautious not to reveal too much… Instead, expect an additional spoiler piece at a later date, once more people have finished it. I’ll say this though: The Medium does not shy away from mature topics such as abuse and trauma, and is a very personal, character-focused story that commands your full attention.
Key to the engrossing ambience is the heightened feel that Polish studio Bloober Team (who have a history of horror games such as Layers of Fear) have created, one that makes Marianne – and therefore the player – feel immediately isolated. We are given evidence of a surrounding contemporary civilisation, through text documents, initial panning shots, and remnants left in the spirit world, but we rarely see Marianne with anyone else in the real world. Take the cinematic shot that leads into taking control of Marianne for the first time – we see her at an open window, looking out onto the world, but not in it, before turning around to go inside. This is emphasised when splitscreen is integrated into certain moments – we see events happening in each world at the same time, so a conversation in the spirit world may appear as Marianne talking to herself in the real world. I think there are clear connections here to a range of subjects around how the mind works and reacts, and this is definitely an area I will dive into in that aforementioned spoiler piece. For now, those are just two examples to my point on how impressed I was that The Medium not only has a gripping central conceit, but also sees how far it can be pushed in gameplay and narrative.
When we first gain control of Marianne, it is within the funeral home she works at, in an opening that effectively establishes several aspects of The Medium. We are introduced to this subdued yet determined main character, her personal abilities as a medium, and how she controls in-game – as well as the sense of unknown revelations surrounding her. The Medium is played in the third-person perspective, in a series of dynamic fixed camera angles – imagine an early Silent Hill or Resident Evil, but with more opportunity for the camera to track you or zoom in/out as you move. As the majority of the field of view is decided for you, it allows Bloober to craft clever bespoke scares through framing and and sound cues. Indeed, much of The Medium reminded me of one of those Resident Evil games I played last year, as if they were created or updated in modern times, with quality of life improvements and more visual sheen (just to be clear, Capcom, if you did that, I would buy them).
As you progress and get familiar with locations, you find various items and points of interaction; they will either form puzzles to figure out, add extra detail to the story, or both. Personally, I would encourage taking the time to delve into this catalogue of found objects; they contain a lot of additional gems of info that, especially as you get toward the climactic moments, contribute to how various threads come together. Environmental puzzles themselves are not that taxing, never leaving me in a position where I was stuck – often, a slow and deliberate investigation of the spaces around you reveals the answer. For The Medium, this works well; the game thrives from the quiet momentum it forges, gradually but decidedly revealing more and more details – both heartwarming and horrifying – as you go. In this way, any long-standing roadblocks would severely disrupt that flow. So, whilst attentive deliberation is needed to progress, the decision not to pack The Medium full of overly complicated barriers is a smart one.
Keeping the Balance
Following a stylish black-and-white credits sequence of real imagery (that very much plays into the cryptic tone), we then follow Marianne as she follows a name trail through an eerie forest to the remote, abandoned, and ruinous Niwa hotel and resort. Large, intricate, multi-floor buildings are often fantastic horror game settings, and this is no exception, with a too-quiet air and plenty of claustrophobic corners and corridors. Around this time, we are gently taught more of the abilities Marianne has, and how they are applied to puzzle and combat solutions. If, say, a blocked path in the real world is open in the spirit world, then you can activate the limited-time Out of Body experience to temporarily leave your body in the former and navigate the space in the latter, your disintegrating form signalling how much time is left. This opens up opportunity to affect the environment and make a path in the real world. Additionally, you have a temporary Spirit Shield that can block some attacks; and if you find a spot to draw energy from, you can deploy a Spirit Blast to energise compatible spots or as a last line of defence. Gotta say, having methods of defence that are not guns is a nice creative change!
Marianne needs those defences, too, because there is plenty of danger to face in the spirit world. A recurring one is The Maw (Troy Baker), a manifestation set on tracking Marianne down to be a new vessel (not saying any more than that!). The elongated, towering, and monstrous look of The Maw is genuinely frightening in concept and cutscenes, though I will say that in the relatively few gameplay meetings, the effect is not always as potent. You will either be attempting to stealthily sneak by, which is usually not too hard, or in sprinting sequences where Marianne is desperately running to safety. Unlike the puzzles, a bit more challenge here would be welcome, to accentuate the intensity of encountering The Maw and put that sense of dread in the player. There is one particular run-in with quite a lukewarm pay-off that left me moderately disappointed; and there are not any higher difficulty levels, with little that can – or, indeed, could – be changed to up the strain, besides a few hint-based settings that are definitely praiseworthy on the accessibility side.
Now, hopefully I have been clear in that The Medium is not a game I expect to supply an arcade-style multitude of settings, and that is totally fine; this is not Resident Evil 3; though that is an engaging comparison, as both games are incredibly cinematic experiences you can play through in around 5+ hours. Whereas RE3 had several difficulty options, plenty of collectibles and challenges, and a shop of in-game rewards, The Medium has almost nothing supplementary. After such an impactful first run-through, I am slightly sad there is not much pulling at me to embark on repeat playthroughs, other than collecting the last few collectibles and Achievements – there must be something other than outright difficulty scaling that could fill this void, perhaps permadeath, different visual filters (playing this in classic horror black-and-white would be amazing), a photo mode… ? I realise there is only so much time and resource that can go in; treat these comments more as an indication of how much I enjoyed The Medium and am searching for reasons to play it again and again.
Other threats that emerge, such as ferocious bug swarms and reaching tentacles, are less actively lethal, but do supply immediacy during slower-paced moments. The Maw is the closest to any form of boss encounter; whilst you meet plenty of other opposition, the resolution is often in the form of cinematics – the stealth and puzzle-solving of the journey are the primary obstacles to overcome. Surprising twists and turns within that, and how gameplay and cutscene always seem intertwined, keep it fulfilling; furthermore, exploration and puzzle design work hard to maintain an intensity. Just controlling Marianne feels natural and smooth, plus you frequently come up against new types of conundrum that prevent repetition from creeping in. Part of this may be down to the dual-reality element, increasingly prominent as solutions get more intricate; late-game scenes ask you to show all you have learned to make your way through, and are extremely rewarding as a result.
The Same, but Different
Matching that array of gameplay approach is how the art direction of The Medium develops over the course of the game. Starting from the striking warm oranges front and central in the marketing material, it runs with a colour palette that also contains sombre deep greens and lonely dark blues. They accent the differentiation of the two realities, the polarity of real world and spirit world reflecting the feel of the moment; for example, disturbing reveals happen amongst twisting vines, stretched flesh, and buildings of bones. It is terrifying, poignant, and thought-provoking all at once, and another factor questioning you on why you think it is all occurring. There is always some sort of basis for it in the real world – take how an overgrown portion of the Niwa hotel becomes a botanical maze in the spirit world. No one look is lingered on too long – in either reality – which plays a vital role in sustaining the palpable tension. Furthermore, the numerous arrangements of splitscreen are kinetic in how much they differ – too much reliance on a layout could have felt static, but the consistent switching up of ratio and orientation firmly prevents that, instead letting the technique fly – I really have never played any game quite like it. Touches such as the real world section going into a blurred effect when Marianne is in an Out of Body experience shows how much attention went in to this.
As well as this, character models, item pick-ups, and various visual effects are all polished to an impressive degree of production value, with the lighting and particle effects very noticeable in their contribution of contrast in subdued environments. Interacting with the spirit world in a positive way literally creates a shining light to your murky surroundings, and seeing such a bright split is a powerful effect. Not to mention that seamlessly skipping from world to world or seeing your movements in both at the same time is technically astounding, with only one point in the whole game where I recognised a framerate drop – and I was on Xbox Series S, the least powerful available platform to play The Medium on. Even so, the game is astonishing visually; the main element that showed any excess system strain was the occasional tiny delay on a cutscene texture loading in during detailed close-ups. I would be fascinated to see The Medium running on Xbox Series X or a high-performance PC.
Creative contrast is not exclusively on the aesthetic side, either. A “dual” soundtrack, as Bloober themselves describe it, has been co-created by Akira Yamaoka (whose career includes work on the Silent Hill series) and Arkadiusz Reikowski (a previous collaborator with Bloober, including on Observer). It seems that the former is behind much of the clanging, disconcerting tracks of the spirit world (one being The Maw) and the latter responsible for the quieter, more mellow music of the real world (see Marianne’s Theme). If unaware beforehand, you might not realise that there is two leading composers; however, you can definitely sense a juxtaposition in the audio itself when playing. Straight away, encounters with The Maw had soul-shaking backing notes markedly disparate from the pieces previous; it instilled a fresh foreboding as I attempted to stay out of sight. Several stunning lyrical songs are included as well, where you hear the emotive voices of Mary E. McGlynn, Troy Baker, and Adam Rucki. Combine these all together and you get a breathtaking soundtrack I am continuing to listen to on Spotify! Audio effects, too – from tactile footsteps down a hallway to the ominous buzzing of a violent swarm – are in this vein of duality. They either softly add to the uneasiness or sharply cut through the hushed atmosphere, another crucial contribution to the cohesive contrast.
Speaking of voice work, I need to comment on the performances of the cast, too. Kelly Burke is brilliantly understated in portraying the clearly intelligent and tragically troubled Marianne – she deserves plaudits, and, come the end of 2021, maybe Awards (let us see how the year goes, it’s only February!) for her role in anchoring The Medium – if Marianne was not as compelling as she is, lots of the game just would not work to the same level. An aspect that I was not expecting was the range of supporting characters, who are all convincingly depicted, whether that be the endearing Sadness (Angeli Wall) met early on in the spirit world, or the mysterious Thomas (Graham Vick). Yep, and hearing Troy Baker getting to play the roars and screeches of The Maw is brilliant in how far removed it is from many of his other roles. That’s Joel!? Referring to Marianne as a “skinsuit”!? Okay, then…
Reviewing The Medium has me considering how to reach overall verdicts, and not just for this game. My time with the psychological horror has undoubtedly hit me in specifically personal ways, and the focus on characters speaks to the sorts of stories I search out. Of course, I am not the only one who might connect to topics of duality, state of mind, and suppressed trauma; far from it, and I hope that playing The Medium can help the way others view the world – as with Celeste, it definitely did so for me. However, if the narrative of The Medium does not connect to someone in such a raw way, it could potentially have much less of an impact, and one where issues such as some unrefined stealth/escape sections and a lack of longevity after the ending could be much more of a detracting factor than they are for me. Yet, a review is an informed opinion, right? A personal take on – in this case – a game, and The Medium is the most the medium (aha!) has emotionally affected me post-Celeste; an utterly unique premise applied to gameplay and narrative with skill, supplemented by amazing art direction, an emphatic soundtrack, and riveting performances. Therefore, I have to give The Medium a score that signifies that it is a game I highly recommend, as well as one that is potentially very player-specific in how much it may resonate. If this is an indicator of the quality of game release in 2021, then there is a lot to look forward to!