The Medium

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: Jan. 28, 2021


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PC Review - 'The Medium'

by Cody Medellin on Jan. 28, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

The Medium is a tension-fueled, psychological horror game built around a central motif: how your perspective changes your perception.

Polish developers Bloober Team specialize in horror. They team may have started out with small offerings in different genres, but its release of Brawl, a reworked version of Basement Crawl, cemented its path toward horror. From Layers of Fear to Observer to Blair Witch, the team focused less on jump-scares and more on keeping players in a constant uneasy state. Its latest game, The Medium, continues down this path but throws in a few other things to keep it interesting.

The game is set in Krakow, Poland, before the start of the 21st century. You play the role of Marianne, a woman constantly haunted by a nightmare of a little girl trying to run away before she gets shot. Marianne possesses the gift of a medium, so she can talk to and traverse the Spirit World. One day, she receives a call from a man named Thomas who needs her help and claims to know more about her past. Following her instincts, Marianne goes to the abandoned resort of Niwa to find her answers.

The Niwa Resort is essentially a haunted house where you'll spend the bulk of your time. Without spoiling much, the reason that we've been summoned to this place isn't that mysterious, and you'll probably figure out the story beat way before the game reveals it. Using Poland as the backdrop feels fresh since not many games use the country as a modern setting, and some of the revelations use the country's history as an unexpected teaching tool. The characters are grounded enough to make the tale work without painting anyone as purely heroic or villainous but people with shades of gray. What's surprising is that the game is willing to tackle subjects that aren't addressed often in games; topics like genocide, sexual abuse, and torture deepen some characters rather than serving as shock value. The game handles the topics respectfully, so they're gut-wrenching even if you were expecting them.

If you've played any of Bloober Team's other games, you know what to expect from the gameplay. The protagonist doesn't have combat abilities, but there isn't a horde of enemies to fight, either. The focus is on standard adventure game mechanics, like finding useful objects to solve puzzles and unlock doors, and there are a number of photos and letters to flesh out the backstory of the resort. The adventure is linear, so there's not much room to explore beyond the narrative, and the hotspots are clearly visible in each environment, diminishing the likelihood of missing anything. The puzzles are on the easy side, so the game isn't too challenging, but the story keeps players engaged through the eight-hour journey.

In terms of gameplay, there are plenty of things that make The Medium stand out from the studio's previous efforts. For one thing, Marianne's medium abilities often come into play, since you can use your sixth sense to see things that no one else can. In solving puzzles, that means finding objects hidden behind pictures or underneath furniture. It isn't used for every puzzle, but you may sometimes be stumped by a puzzle because you forgot to uncover a hidden clue. When you examine objects, finding the spirit fissure lets you gain insight on past conversations and solve a few puzzles in the process. There are also a few times when you need to use the ability to track spiritual footprints that lead to the next clue.

The Medium is presented from a third-person perspective with fixed cameras. It's more comparable to Silent Hill than the old Resident Evil titles in that the camera sometimes follows you before switching angles. The transition points are logically placed, so you don't accidentally go back and forth between the same two scenes, and you have direct control over your character instead of navigating with tank controls. This achieves cinematic angles without having the player fight with the game controls.

The Medium also emphasizes the duality of the world. In the real world, the overcast daytime scenes of Poland provide the oppressive feeling that's necessary in horror games, but the natural woods and dilapidated state of the resort still look wonderful. Throw in the rain during certain moments, and it looks somewhat picturesque, while the dated magazines and signs add to the idea that the resort is frozen in time. By contrast, the spirit world was designed with Polish surrealist artist Zdzisław Beksiński in mind, but it's also reminiscent of the hellscape settings in the old Keanu Reeves movie, "Constantine." Remnants of buildings are slathered in rust colors. Darker areas have bones and limbs jutting out, while the dead wear porcelain masks. Combined with the skin doors and root walls that twist and turn like sinew, the game is unsettling even before you see any signs of blood.

Aside from a change in appearance — black hair in the real world and white hair in the spirit world — Marianne gains a few more abilities in the spirit realm. She can create a spirit discharge, which recharges fuse boxes among other things. She can also create a spirit shield that protects you from moths, one of the few enemies that can actually kill you in the game. Both of these abilities are powered by spirit wells, so you need to seek them out if you want those powers.

While most of the game keeps you completely in the real world or completely in the spirit world, a good chunk of the experience has you playing in both simultaneously. It's completely up to the game to do this, so you can't control when and where the split occurs. You control Marianne in both places, and the differences are stark beyond just environmental aesthetics. An early example of this comes when you're asked to follow a little girl named Sadness to the second floor of the resort. While the spirit world has a solid staircase, the real world does not, forcing you to find an alternate path upstairs. Another example comes later when you approach a hallway that seems fine in the real world but is overrun with moths in the spirit world, forcing you to use your shield ability to protect yourself as you pass through.

Some puzzles require an out-of-body experience, so you can control the spirit version of Marianne while the real-world version stays behind. The disconnect is often used to solve gate-related puzzles. It is also a power with a timer, so your spirit version slowly deteriorates until you link back up with your real world form; the lack of cooldown means that you don't have to wait before using the technique again. This approach can seem like a gimmick instead of letting you switch between worlds, but it's a worthwhile payoff to see how both worlds are tied together, such as when Sadness is holding a ball in the spirit world but the real world shows it floating in the air.

Aside from the dual split-screen world and change in viewpoint, another thing keeps you on your toes: The Maw. In the spirit world, the creature is large and tall but not entirely grotesque-looking. When the creature breaks into the real world, it loses its sight but is otherwise invisible. When it appears, sometimes signaled by the flickering of your flashlight, you enter one of two situations. The first situation is a chase sequence where you run as fast as you can until you reach a safe spot, manually taking the appropriate turns and activating the correct action points while not necessarily devolving into a quick time event (QTE). The second situation is a stealth sequence where you try to not get caught as you crouch behind cover and hold your breath. In both cases, you'll constantly be berated by The Maw. As with the moths, you can initiate a spirit blast, provided you're in the spirit world and have the energy to initiate an attack.

The sections provide a nice break from the exploration in the rest of the game, but while the inclusion of a nearly invincible antagonist may bring back memories of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, most of the sections aren't nerve-wracking. The stealth sections are fairly easy to get through, since The Maw's patrol area isn't that wide, and your sneaking speed and ability to hold your breath means that it's easy to get past the creature. The chase sequences are more daunting because they're less frequent, and the difficulty ramps up in the latter half of the game.

There are a few issues that stand out in The Medium. The first is that you can't manually save your progress. Everything is handled via autosaving, and while you are told how long ago the game was last saved, it's never clear where it happened until you load it up. Also, while the game features no loading beyond the title screen, there are moments when the game experiences some hitches as you transition between areas. It's noticeable on both an SSD and even an NVMe drive, and while it only happens for a couple of seconds, it's a surprise when it does occur.

The audio is solid most of the time. For the real-world scenes, the score by Arkadiusz Reikowski is haunting but sad, and it does a great job of presenting the sorrow in the locale without piling it on too thick. By contrast, Akira Yamaoka's soundtrack for the spirit world brings back a sound that conveys dread and unease without resorting to the shrill sounds associated with horror. Both work well with each other and with the game's theme of dual realities, while the soundtrack is brilliant. The voice acting is excellent, but Kelly Burke's performance as Marianne is stellar. Given the task of carrying the bulk of the game, her monologues come through naturally, whether she's expressing fear or snark.

Sound-wise, the only flaw is that some areas have poor audio mixing. There are moments when the music drowns out the dialogue or the dialogue delivers an important plot point but can barely be heard. You'll be thankful for the subtitles that give you the option to see who's saying what, but they shouldn't be a requirement to enjoy the game.

Both the real and spirit worlds benefit from the high-quality texture work. What's impressive is that it runs at a steady frame rate during the split-screen segments, going for 60fps and beyond if you have the robust gear for it. It runs at a locked 30fps if you're running with budget hardware from two generations ago. The animations are inconsistent. The walking and running are fine, but it looks like you're taking a brisk jog until you reach the chase sequences. The faces look good, but the mouth movements get kind of squirrelly; there are times when they don't move enough or fail to match the dialogue, so it seems like a dub job. After you see it once, it's difficult to unsee it.

The Medium is another recent game that takes advantage of ray tracing, but it falls more in line with Call of Duty: Black Ops: Cold War than Cyberpunk 2077 or Fortnite. Ray-traced reflections are present, but you aren't going to find too many reflective surfaces to see it in action. The same goes for transparent reflections thanks to the general lack of sunlight in the game. It's all about lighting and shadows here, as they do a better job of grounding objects to the scene or making shadows look more realistic and creepy, especially once you acquire your body-bound flashlight. It's one of those things where the RTX features add some pop but aren't overly blatant unless you're constantly toggling the feature in scenes. Of course, it needs DLSS to mitigate the performance hit and still make things look good, something that is starting to become a common refrain for titles that adopt the new ray-tracing tech.

Like many of Bloober Team's titles, The Medium isn't a horror game made for all horror fans. The lack of jump-scares can be refreshing, but some will be turned off by the lack of combat and danger. The game's relaxed pace, its linear nature, and the ease of its puzzles can erode the tension of the mystery. The strong atmosphere, grounded characters, and solid storyline will attract horror fans who are looking for something other than grotesque monsters to hunt down or run away from. For those who value plot over punch, The Medium is a journey worth taking.

Score: 8.0/10

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