The Medium has some large shoes to fill as the first next-gen only Xbox console exclusive. Bloober Team's innovative new horror game, built on the bones of the original Silent Hill, has been on my radar for a while now. The Medium's ambitious and innovative gameplay is no small feat, but is flattened by technical limitations and pacing decisions that keep it from sitting alongside its inspiration in the Horror Hall of Fame. As a day one arrival to Console and PC Game Pass, however, I have no doubt The Medium will one day be considered a cult classic.
Split Screen Scares
The first thing everyone seems to be asking about The Medium is whether the two simultaneous worlds are a gimmick. In short, no. This ambitious selling point for Bloober Team's newest outing is a core part of the experience and ties thematically into the story. Two worlds, two sides to every person, two truths. Only about third of the game or less is played in split-screen reality, but these segments are truly the highlight of The Medium. The segments where Marianne is traversing the dilapidated and cursed Niwa Hotel in the real world are very reminiscent of the original Resident Evil or Silent Hill, while the segments that take place entirely in the spirit world are something totally new. Stepping through a mirror will take Marianne to the disgusting, deadened spirit world. You'll get over all the skeletons and oozing fungus pretty quickly, but I cannot say the same for the walls made of human skin that you must cut through manually with a butterfly knife.
The dual reality of rendering two worlds at once offers The Medium a chance to stand out from other games in the genre, and it succeeds mightily in this regard. Solving environmental puzzles by coordinating both your Mariannes in two different worlds is, for the most part, satisfying. Spirit Marianne can also astral project out of her body for a limited time to move to different locations the material Marianne can't reach. This offers a whole new slew of multi-tiered puzzles, the likes of which I have not seen before in a game. I'll note that The Medium is entirely a fixed-camera game, and for good reason - swiveling a free camera in two different split screen worlds simultaneously would be enough to make anyone queasy. Nevertheless, the split screen mechanic is never thrown to the wayside and functions entirely as intended to bolster puzzle possibilities.
The Medium is mostly about walking, investigating and solving puzzles, but there are light combat elements, too. One of my gripes with games like Amnesia or SOMA is that if you are caught by the monster, it's game over. You're intended to just hide and wait it out. In The Medium, you can absorb power from spirit wells that can be used for puzzles or, if captured by a monster, release a spirit blast to get away. Marianne also has shielding abilities that deflect certain enemies as well. This comes back to the fact that she walks taller and more confidently than other horror protagonists; she is competent and on a mission.
A Refreshing New Horror
Having experienced a fair few horror games and movies in my time, I've begun to grow a bit jaded with how media elects to try and throw scares my way. Resident Evil 2 (2019) was the last title to really shake me, by way of providing the illusion of control over my situation and constantly yanking it away. Marianne, our protagonist in The Medium, feels much the same way; she is not frightened by most of the horrific things she sees, as they are part of her daily life. As a medium, Marianne constantly but unwillingly flashes to existing in two worlds simultaneously, our material plane and the overlaid spirit world. This happens to her several times a day, and has for her entire life.
While I, the player, saw many horrific and revolting things in the spirit world, Marianne is mostly unphased. One specific instance near the beginning is when a classic horror movie trope begins - the lights flicker, a ball rolls out of the darkness, and a young girl's sing-song "come play with me" lilts through the stagnant air followed by an echoing chuckle. Marianne does not so much as wince; instead, she approaches the rotting ghost of the young girl in the darkness and asks for her name. I was intrigued and was happy to see this trend continue throughout. Marianne's jaded but determined approach to the disgusting and oozy features of the spirit world is unlike anything I've seen in a horror game (or movie, as a matter of fact). The Medium is much better for providing its own type of more intelligent horror, almost foregoing jump scares altogether in favor of creeping, existential dread.
The Medium puts its foot down and declares defiantly that monsters are monsters, and they should be damned to hell no matter how they got that way.
The Medium is absolutely drenched in atmosphere. The dulcet greys and blues of the material world contrast the sepia-toned spirit world, and just when you're getting fed up with the consistency of the color palette you'll step into a forest or rose garden or library that changes things up. One of the main marketing points for The Medium was that its score was composed by Akira Yamaoka, the legendary composer of all the Silent Hill games. Yamaoka does not disappoint. The Medium's score switches from wafting piano notes in the material world to trip-hop drums and frantic strings in the spirit world, using the erratic juxtaposition of each world to contrast the dissonant styles. The Medium is already ranked among the best horror game soundtracks I've ever heard.
Bloober Team is a Polish studio, and The Medium is set in 1999 Krakow, Poland. I had anticipated perhaps some accents, but it seems that the voice actors for all characters have neutral American accents, including our protagonist, Marianne. The strangeness of this choice is more pronounced as later in the game Russian and German characters are introduced, all still with flat Midwestern American accents. In addition, all of the writing in this decrepit Polish hotel is in English - that's possibly feasible since it was an international resort, but everything down to the graffiti on the walls is written in English. All of the characters, regardless of their country of origin, have very "classic" American names; Lily, Rose, Henry, Richard, Nicholas, etc. The plot of The Medium, however, absolutely necessitates it being set in 90s Poland. The hold of the Soviet Union over the nation 20 years prior and the Nazi occupation before that are very important to the plot, but at the same time Bloober Team seems to want to distance themselves from the setting. It all comes off as tonally dissonant.
Marianne spends most of the game talking out loud to herself. At first it seems to be inner thoughts, but her lips are constantly moving as she wanders the empty hotel speaking aloud. The voice actor delivers a pretty good performance, but nothing truly of note. Her decision to play Marianne as a casual friend you ran into at the gym works well with her dismissive attitude of many things horror. The only thing she's really afraid of is The Maw. And speak of the devil!
During The Medium, Marianne is being hunted by a single, unkillable entity called The Maw. This demonic creature is invisible in the real world (but visible in the spirit world) and is tracking Marianne for the duration of the story. The Maw is voiced by one of my favorite voice actors in gaming, Troy Baker, but unfortunately he is totally wasted on this character. His voice is put through so many filters and modulators to sound "demonic" that players won't even be able to tell it's him, and Bloober Team also seems to have directed him to play up the character as comedic and hammy as possible. The unfortunate result is that the Maw becomes less frightening every time he speaks and would have been better off not having a voice at all.
A Thematic Tightrope
The story of The Medium begins in 1999 with Marianne's adoptive father passing away. While she prepares his remains for the funeral, she receives a mysterious call from someone called "Thomas" who knows that she is a medium. He frantically calls her to the mysterious and abandoned Niwa Hotel, a now-decrepit 5 star resort outside of town where a rumored massacre took place twenty years prior. The entirety of the game takes place in and around the Niwa, and by speaking to ghosts and finding logs and memories she uncovers the truth of the massacre and many events leading up to it. The first half of the game is about what you'd expect from viewing the trailers, but the second act is where the stakes skyrocket tremendously while the story branches off into a B- and C-plot that have no bearing on the main story.
The first splash screen upon opening The Medium greets the player with a content warning. PLEASE HEED THIS WARNING. The Medium is built entirely on themes of sexual violence against children, child abuse and malicious gaslighting, especially in the second half. Several characters have revelations about things that happened to them as children, dragging repressed memories to the surface. The moral of The Medium seems to be that monsters beget monsters. It handles all these delicate themes well, showcasing in excruciating detail how people become sexual predators and child abusers, and then declaring with finality that it doesn't matter how it happened. The explanation is not an excuse. The Medium puts its foot down and declares defiantly that monsters are monsters, and they should be damned to hell no matter how they got that way.
A Nightmare... In Pacing
I clocked in right at 9 hours with The Medium, but even with its modest playtime it's about three hours too long. The second and third acts comprise largely of taking control of a different character and diving into long-forgotten memories to see how terrible people became terrible. While it's somewhat interesting, it really should have been relegated to another game or maybe a DLC. The roughly two hours of spirit walking through memories serves no purpose to Marianne's story and is interjected into the game right when we're about to reach the climax. After building action to a specific moment for 6 hours, The Medium elects to interrupt the story to teach us about people we don't know or care about before slamming us back into the story for a final, additional hour of game. There were three separate times where I was sure I'd reached the end of the story only to be given more that I did not ask for.
It's right at the end, right when you think the game is over that The Medium presents you with the absolute worst part of the experience, the fallout shelter. Without spoiling anything it's essentially the equivalent of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time's infamous Water Temple, except perhaps even more convoluted. Placing this half-hour section of the game in between the final build up and the actual climax leads the ending to land as an absolute dud. The ending itself is, for lack of a better word, an Inception ending. I did not find it satisfying, but perhaps other will disagree. Nevertheless, the story falls flat due to constant interruptions and premature finalities.
Ambitious but Technically Limited
Some have been skeptical about Demon's Souls being a next-gen exclusive; could it truly not run on a PlayStation 4? If you're one of said detractors, I've got good news for you. There is no way on earth The Medium would run on an Xbox One. My PC rig has an RTX 2060 Super graphics card, a Ryzen 5 3600 CPU and 16 GB of RAM. My monitor is 1440p 144hz. I spent a long time fiddling with the settings, and after an exhausting half hour I resigned to the fact that The Medium could not reach 60 FPS on my PC in 1440p. Even on low settings I could barely keep 30 FPS. The PC version of The Medium does feature ray tracing, but it does very little for the game and just hogs more power, so I recommend players just turn it off. I ended up setting the FPS limiter to 30 and playing on medium settings with DLSS on high for the best possible experience. Even then, most cutscenes dipped to single digit frame rates at some point. After my PC's struggles with it, I'm not convinced The Medium will even run on an Xbox Series S.
The Medium has a major problem with loading textures. It seemed that every fourth or fifth room I walked into loaded a slate of textureless polygons for 10-15 seconds, even during cut scenes. Every flip to the spirit world and back took around 10 seconds to load textures, save for Marianne - for whatever reason, her model never took time to load. One of the more notable issues was the textures for The Maw not loading for around 10 seconds when he appeared; there's something distinctly less frightening about a block of brown, blurry polygons. In addition, moving Marianne around is a bit clunky. She moves an extra step when the player releases the control stick, which is annoying but never makes a difference in gameplay since there's no direct combat or platforming to be done. I also wish she could run faster; it would have aided the tediousness of the memory segments.
The Medium is Bloober Team's best outing yet, and with more refinement I think their next title could be truly great. It suffers from many shortcomings, namely technical bugs and meandering plot lines. Despite this, it handily excels at controlling atmosphere and directing the player's experience while presenting a compelling protagonist to follow. The Medium is not one the best horror games I've ever played, but it is one of the most unique and ambitious ones. The Medium boasts some features, like the dual reality puzzle solving, that I would like to see iterated on in the future of the genre. And with it coming to Game Pass on day one, I advise all horror fans to dip their toes in to the spirit world and see what's on the other side of the mirror.
TechRaptor reviewed The Medium on PC with a copy provided by the publisher. It is also available on Xbox Series X/S.
- Amazingly Directed Atmosphere and Music
- Hard-hitting Themes with a Point to Make
- A Protagonist Who Isn't Afraid Provided a Fresh Take on Horror
- Myriad of Texture and Frame Rate Issues
- Meandering Plot Lines That Don't Provide Closure
- Poor Pacing in Both Story and Gameplay