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The Medium

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: PLAION
Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: Sept. 3, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'The Medium'

by Redmond Carolipio on Sept. 2, 2021 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

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

Buy The Medium

If you spend enough time traveling through the dark corners of humanity, you're going to trip and stumble over a few things before you find some kind of resolution. That's what happens with Bloober Team's The Medium, an imperfect, horrifying but engrossing tale about the ripple effect that occurs when one person — or people — have been tormented well beyond any comprehensible limits. There's some dark s**t in this game, and most of this experience is you stepping in it and dealing with what comes next.

The story starts with a bad dream and death. In the words of protagonist Maryanne, "It all starts with a dead girl." The dream involves a girl running away from someone, only to reach a lake and to be shot dead. This is Maryanne's recurring dream, and it remains tied to her as she grieves the death of her foster father Jack, a funeral home director who took her in when she was a child with a murky past. The first time you're actually able to control Maryanne, it's to help her prepare Jack's body for his own memorial services.

This is where the player first gets familiar with the presentation, mechanics and rhythm of storytelling. In a retro flourish, The Medium visually feels like old-school Resident Evil, with detailed backgrounds presented at a relatively fixed camera angle, leaving the player to move around and explore the area. As you move to different areas, you get a new camera angle that's shot wide enough to give you visual room to explore. The camera occasionally follows you down hallways and long paths. Items and points of possible interaction and interest can be seen as dots that become button icons as Maryanne gets closer to them — doors can be opened, levers pushed, notes and pictures can be glanced at and read, and so on. This presentation offers a few advantages, the biggest being that it seems to allow for impeccable visual clarity and detail in Maryanne's surroundings. I've been in a funeral home or two in my life, and even in this opening funeral home setting, the visuals allowed me to almost smell the morgue downstairs and feel the peaceful but somber stillness of the air you only get in a place like that.

This opening setting is also where we get a peek into Maryanne's backstory. As the title suggests, she's a spirit medium, someone who has a mental or ethereal connection to the spirit world. There's readable lore and occasional dialogue sequences to help flesh out the details, but the gist is that Maryanne's had this ability since she was very young, which made her a bit of a social outcast. There aren't many moments of levity in this game, but one of them is finding a keepsake letter at the funeral home to Jack from an annoyed school principal, detailing how young Maryanne upset a fellow schoolmate by trying to share a "message" from the classmate's dead grandmother. Maryanne has learned more about her abilities over the years, and we find that one of her specialties is meeting souls in the spirit world and ushering them into the next stage of the afterlife.

It's a strange existence for Maryanne, and it gets turned around when someone with desperation in his voice calls her at the funeral home and tells her that he knows "what" and "who" she is, and begs for her to meet him at the abandoned Niwa Workers Resort, a large communism-era hotel where an incident known as the Niwa Massacre occurred. So, yes … a spirit medium is heading to a place where a lot of people were killed, likely in horrible fashion, to meet a stranger. What could possibly go wrong?

It's at this point where I'm going to try avoiding talking too much about the story to avoid spoilers. The Niwa resort is where you're exposed to almost everything The Medium has to offer in terms of its take on the spirit world, the rules it asks you (and Maryanne) to abide by, and what kind of real monsters she has to encounter. The game's most intriguing feature is how it handles Maryanne's forays into the spirit world, which for the record, generally looks like a scary, desolate, creepy and outright gross place to be. But it also turns Maryanne into a mystical dual-world detective who spends most of her time finding clues, solving puzzles, and learning more about herself and others.

The game attains this through its use of split-screen, which has been around since the stone age of gaming, but perhaps not quite to this level of diverse effectiveness. Maryanne doesn't trigger this at will — the game decides when it's time to dive in. Sometimes the split screen is horizontal, and other times it's vertical, but every time it happens, the experience opens up.

I appreciated some of the complexity of Maryanne's spirit-world travels, especially some of the rules that deal with how the material and spirit worlds are tied together. For the most part, both versions of Maryanne (her spirit form has glowing white hair and a much more ghostly complexion) act and move simultaneously in split-screen. However, if there's an obstacle in her path that stops her from moving in one world, it'll affect her in the other. If there's a downed fuse box in the real world, perhaps it's "locked" but able to be restored in the spirit world using one of Maryanne's several spiritual abilities. This adds a special layer to the puzzle-solving elements of the game, which is good, since I felt like 90% percent of the experience involved navigating around some kind of puzzle.

Maryanne can do quite a bit in the spirit world. She has a spirit "blast" that needs to be powered up by absorbing energy from "spirit wells." The blast can clear paths and restore power to the aforementioned fuse boxes, or it can light fires. A wrinkle is that occasionally, spirit wells need to be awakened, which leads to a puzzle of its own. Spirit energy can also be used to put up a defensive shield, which is useful to ward off swarms of phantom moths that can kill Maryanne in seconds; if she dies in the spirit world, it's lights-out for Maryanne in the real one. She can also use "insight" with a press of the left shoulder button, which is her version of heightened focus that allows her to find special clues, like the stories behind certain items that she finds, or even hidden clues, like footprints or traces left in the spirit world that can provide a direction.

My favorite of her talents is the "out of body experience," in which the spirit version of Maryanne can separate from real-world Maryanne (the half-screen showing regular Maryanne goes dark when this happens) and move independently for a limited amount of time. Spirit Maryanne erodes the longer she's in this state, and if she doesn't get back to the material Maryanne in time, both are gone. However, you can always "snap" back to reconnecting with real-world Maryanne with a button press, and you can repeat the process as much as you need. This comes in handy when locked doors in the real world appear only as blurry fields in the spirit world, and only spirit Maryanne can go through them to explore and find clues. There are even instances where the spirit version of Maryanne can manipulate time to piece together parts of a story or find ways to open certain doors. I ended up doing that to access a hidden chamber in the Niwa director's abandoned office.

One thing that's missing from Maryanne's library of gifts is the ability to truly fight, which is not helpful during another core part of the experience: running for her life from and eluding a big, awful, and bone-chilling monster with a soul-penetrating voice that is the soundtrack of nightmares. What makes it worse — other than hearing it say things like, "let me try you on" — is eventually finding out what it really is. I'll leave it at that. It's horrible. Like the Nemesis, it pops up from time to time to terrorize Maryanne. Like the Alien from Alien: Isolation, there is very little Maryanne can do to stop it from instantly wiping her from existence once it gets its hands on her. She has to find ways to creatively stall or evade it for survival.

The monster is just one part of the twisted story arc, one that gives visceral life to some of the most evil themes humanity has ever dared to wade into, such as rape, child abuse, torture and murder. It's appropriate to say there's an "edge" to The Medium narrative, but the edge is dull, electing to scrape away layers of the psyche as opposed to cleanly slicing them off.

The thing that really stops me from heaping more words of praise onto The Medium is that the actual act of playing it can be somewhat of a chore. It felt a little stiff, which was something of an issue with the old Resident Evil games I had mentioned before, where you feel like you're steering a cart instead of controlling an actual person, especially when that person has to occasionally move quickly.

The menu system could have also used a more modern fluidity since it's so essential in acquiring pieces to solve puzzles. The clunkiness is most evident when it comes to puzzles where items have to be placed on something in a certain order, like a set of pictures on a fireplace. Many games these days allow a more seamless transition when it comes to picking sequential items back up, moving them around, putting them back, and allowing you to tinker. Not so with The Medium, where I had to do the full tour of picking up the item, seeing it in full screen, and securing it each time. It's a nitpick, but it's an unneeded feeling of hassle. Finally, even though the game isn't very long, there were times when I felt it drag. This is because of the emotional baggage and building tension along with the slightly cyclical feeling of having to solve puzzles over and over, but that's the game's nature and a matter of taste. I would've also liked to have seen ways to grow Maryanne's abilities, whether it was strengthening the stuff she already had or even adding a few more new ones.

Bloober Team is no stranger to making games that feature concepts with immense potential, like Blair Witch or Observer. The Medium is probably my favorite of theirs to date. It's got a couple of warts, but it's easy to get lost in its world (both of them), even with its pitch-black narrative overtones. It makes it feel important, though perhaps not something you'll feel compelled to play on repeat.

Score: 7.7/10

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