Few gaming genres present developers with as big a challenge as horror. Crafting an experience that produces an excited or joyful reaction seems easy when compared to creating a tense and scary situation within a virtual environment. Yet we’ve had masterpieces within this space, with many holding up Silent Hill 2 as one of the very best. And yet since it released, few games have even come close to replicating the magic it delivered. Bloober Team looked to do that seemingly impossible task with The Medium, a deeply personal game for the Polish developer. And while much of their work paid off admirably, the final result is a mixed bag.
Marianne has always been different. As a “Medium” she lives within two worlds; the world of the living and that of the dead. As far as she knows, she is the only person with this ability, which she has used as a tool to give lost spirits some rest in the after life. When her adoptive father suddenly dies though, she finds herself confronted with the mystery surrounding her powers and her own past after a mysterious call directs her to the Niwa Hotel in rural Poland. Calling back to a recurring dream she has had about a young girl’s murder, the mystery only deepens from there.
The Medium wears its inspirations as a badge of honor. Silent Hill (more specifically its first and best sequel) is the biggest, with famed composer Akira Yamaoka crafting the soundtrack in conjunction with Arkadiusz Reikowski. The environments and general gameplay follow suit. Exploring the Niwa Hotel harkens back to those opening moments of delving deeper and deeper into the foggy hell that was Silent Hill.
With a fixed camera offering an eerie view of the action, Marianne walks slowly, purposefully, often ploddingly around the environment exploring for clues or triggering switches to access the next area. In some of these areas things are relatively normal. Delapidated, and disturbing, but still within the realm of reality. However, some places have a history and that history has bled through enough for Marianne’s Medium ability to detect.
The Medium feels like it could have been better served as a tight, tense 4 hour experience
Here the game introduces its main mechanic of split reality. The screen actually splits, showing you Marianne in her regular and ghostly form, with the world attuned to each. You control both at the same time, navigating the abandoned Niwa Hotel and its surrounding areas while also exploring the spiritual equivalent in the other half of the screen. Fleshy walls, dark passages, and spiritual obstacles replace the concrete and forests of Poland in 1999. Actions in one world impact the other, oftentimes requiring you to accomplish a task in the real or spiritual world in order to progress in the other.
While this was a large part of the marketing for The Medium, these moments are still somewhat rare, only accounting for maybe one third of the eight to ten hour experience. But that doesn’t mean most of your gameplay is spent in the regular world. Other times you can shift between worlds using specifically placed mirrors. This feels much more similar to how dual worlds have been handled in other games, and The Medium suffers somewhat by losing out on its main gimmick.
More detrimental to the player’s overall enjoyment though is that there’s simply not much interesting going on in either world. The spiritual world is solid eye candy, for those who get enjoyment out of the horrific and grotesque, but there’s not much to actually do once you get over the spectacle. The only enemies in The Medium are of the unkillable variety, while obstacles are typically a quick jaunt down a hallway away from being overcome.
One of the most complex elements of The Medium is the spiritual energy mechanic. This is where objects of great power can be drained into Marianne, giving her the ability to activate a switch or traverse dangerous terrain via a shield. While some of these require a quick puzzle solve where you recharge the object in order to use its power somewhere else, they almost always boil down to exploring the environment, finding an item, and simply placing it somewhere else.
These types of puzzles aren’t too dissimilar from what worked well in Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and other games that inspired The Medium and its genre staples. However, those games offered a larger environment to explore, with more puzzles active at any one time. In The Medium you are almost always progressing forward along a set path, with rare chances to actually explore or navigate the environment in any complex way. So typically you run into an obstacle, look in the nearby area to find all the items and clues, then solve it and move on. If you get stuck you can use “Insight” to sense spiritual energy, which is basically a hint system with some required uses. It’s mostly mindless work that simply pads out what would have been a much shorter, but likely more enjoyable runtime.
With no combat to speak of, the time in between these “puzzles” isn’t that much more engaging either. Marianne, and other characters you occasionally control, moves so slowly it can become frustrating. Even when the action picks up, the game is so set on rails that you don’t feel any tension or excitement. You’re moving toward a pre-determined outcome no matter what you do, so just press the right buttons and move in the right direction until the game shows you that the task is complete.
Many times these sections seem to be trying to induce terror, with red/green lighting, loud noises, and ominous environments which do truly look fantastic, especially with the ray traced lighting offered on Xbox Series X. But the action is so slow and the result so definite that it’s tough to muster more than annoyance at having to do all these things. Some stealth moments are introduced later on, but they are cumbersome and show that this game wasn’t built to sustain them well at all. The Medium feels like it could have been better served as a tight, tense 4 hour experience, but has instead had roadblocks and long sections or repetitive gameplay inserted to get it to an acceptable level.
Much the same can be said about the story, which feels like it has a clear plot and message to deliver but instead mixes things up to create the facade of complexity and intrigue. Starting off with the framing device of Marianne telling this as a story falls apart at various points and feels quite forced once all is revealed. There are also moments that draw on historical knowledge that isn’t quite expressed in the game itself, causing potential confusion. Add on the many times the game comes up to a crescendo in the story then cuts away to tell what appears to be a separate tale, lacking any context until long after the relevent portions have faded from memory, and the plot simply doesn’t deliver like it should either.
And yet, with all these flaws I still felt an admiration and appreciationg for The Medium. It’s a game that was clearly developed with heart and delivers some of the horror vibes so many gamers yearn for. The opening hours especially feel like coming home to Silent Hill style horror once again and will have players excited for what’s to come. Fantastic character and environmental design help enhance this feeling. But as the game goes on it is diminished over and over until the ending arrives and things don’t really click the way they needed to to redeem the other problems.
The Medium will scratch the horror itch for some for a while but fails to live up to its potential in a number of significant ways. While its world is intriguing it doesn’t do enough to keep players engaged as its story unravels before them. With compelling gameplay this could have worked out, but there’s no real challenge either mentally or physically as you make your way through. Instead all it tests is your patience and your dedication to piecing together the too often fractured narrative.
- This article was updated on January 27th, 2021