I wish I liked The Medium more than I do. Polish studio Bloober Team have attempted to parlay their talent for horror, glacially-paced exploration, and strong writing into a single title. The result is a game with a great hook, caught somewhere between a Silent Hill throwback and a walking simulator. Sadly, despite its detailed world and restrained script, it never quite won me over.
The game’s titular medium is Marianne, a woman who can move between the world of the living and the dead in real-time. Marianne has been lured to a run-down resort deep in the Polish woods in hopes of uncovering more of where her supernatural abilities came from. The story is deftly written and often truly disturbing, though actress Kelly Burke’s wry line delivery helps inject some sorely needed levity.
The game is perhaps at its scariest when it has you ducking its primary antagonist, The Maw, voiced by Troy Baker who is in truly monstrous form here. The Maw is an oppressive presence, though a derivative of the hunter-killer enemies of Resident Evil 2 and 3. Like those classic villains, you can’t actually kill The Maw. Your best bet is to simply keep out of its way. It is a constant source of anxiety and I came to dread hearing it pop up again.
Progression through the game frequently splits your presence between the living world and the dead at the same time using a literal split screen. This is why the game appears on the Xbox Series X — Bloober Team took advantage of the system’s high-end data streaming capabilities to perform its most impressive trick. During these sections, your actions in one realm have a clear effect on the other. Marianne may see the spirit world, but her body is still very much in the material plane at the time. On one side of the screen, a simple office in a funeral parlour. On the other, a blasted landscape of bone and blood.
Here’s my problem though: whenever the game wasn’t throwing The Maw or the split screen trick at me, I actually found it a bit dull. The tension felt like it drained away and I frequently felt my attention ebbing, willing The Maw to show up again.
The Medium uses its split-screen hook to open up lots of interesting angles for puzzle design, like out-of-body experiences. These allow Marianne’s incorporeal form access to areas of the prime material plane that would be otherwise closed to her. This mechanic is used to create puzzle-solving opportunities as well, but too few in my opinion. Beyond these moments, the game is far too content to lean on old survival horror cliches — find the right key, reattach a missing valve, repair a broken lever. All the old staples get a turn.
Solving the mystery of Marianne’s origins is, however, fairly rote. Items discarded by the recently deceased can be inspected using Marianne’s insight ability to gather information on their late owners. It is otherwise used to look for sets of ghostly footprints that will give you a nudge in the right direction.
Another strong nod to The Medium‘s survival horror inspirations is its presentation. Though the game is in third-person (a departure for Bloober, whose Blair Witch and Layers of Evil were both in first-person), it relies on pre-set camera angles just like the Silent Hill and RE originals. The reason for this, according to Bloober themselves, is that having a floating third-person camera was causing nausea in players during the split-screen segments. That’s a solid workaround but that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating too. Many of the game’s environments are pitch dark, so trying to find your way around while readjusting your movement as you pass from frame to frame can feel rather fiddly.
The Medium is an ambitious and often quite scary little horror game with a novel idea at its centre. There are moments of brief genius, some stomach-turning moments of horror, but much of my eight-hour playthrough felt like a trudge. When it wanted to scare me, it could. When it wasn’t time to do that, the tension seemed to fall away and I was left to feel my way down dark hallway after dark hallway, looking for my keys.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Great visuals; Great hook; Great performances
Lowlights: Some aging game design
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Platforms: Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC
Review conducted using pre-release code provided by Xbox ANZ.