“The Medium is a terrifying piece of music bogged down by retro influence and a protagonist who can’t stop sharing too much.”
Gimmicky double perspective
The medium is between two worlds. Just as its protagonist Marianne simultaneously navigates through the worlds of the living and dead, the game itself exists both as a modern psychological thriller and as a horror relapse from the PlayStation era.
The Medium was developed by the Bloober team and carries its influences on its tattered sleeves. The slow horror game will look instantly familiar to Resident Evil Diehards thanks to its fixed camera angles, research-intensive gameplay, and sometimes silly dialogue. At the same time, it delivers a dark and serious story that is more in line with current games like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice.
While The Medium delivers with stunning graphics and a truly troubling universe, it’s held back by the old school horror trademarks that only detract from an otherwise effective piece of sound.
Talk less, shock more
The medium follows Marianne, a medium that can not only communicate with the dead, but also enter their world. After losing her adoptive father, she follows a mysterious phone call to a shabby hotel in hopes of finding answers about her past. The game begins with an extra powerful intro that sets the stage for a calm, atmospheric story that blends in with spooky visual storytelling.
It won’t take long. The game relies heavily on voice over for Marianne to show the player an exposure. Every time she picks up an item, it will think about its purpose and not leave any confusion about what players should do with it. If she doesn’t, we hear her constant internal monologue explaining exactly what is happening on the screen. In a jigsaw puzzle, she discovers that a statue looks “lonely” and quickly makes it clear that it is as if “a piece is missing”.
What’s worse is that she often quips like a Marvel superhero at the most inopportune moments. The medium tells a deeply raw story of repressed childhood trauma that contains difficult depictions of abuse. These moments are visceral and haunting, but they lose their power when interspersed with Hammy one-liners.
While it looks like the game is trying to alleviate the desolation, sometimes it feels like it isn’t taking itself seriously enough.
In one bizarre scene, Marianne runs through an area full of ghosts of murdered children and jokes happily about how the phrase “bolt cutter” sounds like a spy or a porn star.
Video games are no stranger to when it comes to sharing with gamers or making flat jokes. The original Resident Evil games practically built their name on poor dialogue. The difference is that these games are digital B-movies that are rooted in pulp horror. The medium, on the other hand, tackles several sensitive issues directly, which will be difficult for some players. While it looks like the game is trying to alleviate the desolation, sometimes it feels like it isn’t taking itself seriously enough.
Half and half
When it comes to gameplay, The Medium is wrong on the minimalism side. There are no weapons, no combat and only one real “monster” in the entire game. Instead, it is based entirely on exploration. Most of the game is spent interacting with objects and solving easy puzzles. Some of the game’s best moments come from Marianne learning about the dead through items she left behind.
This gameplay feels straight out of the old school Resident Evil manual, though it overlooks a few pages. Despite exploring a sprawling hotel, the game is extremely linear. Every time Marianne picks up an object, it is used within a few minutes. Instead of building on Resident Evil’s curvy puzzle box mansion, it references the game mechanics with no context. That dilutes the sense of exploration and makes everything seem a little on the rails.
The game’s main catch is the dual reality gameplay, which is half-hearted as well. At certain points the game breaks into a split screen in which the players control Marianne in the living and dead world at the same time. It’s a mind-boggling spectacle, but one that never reaches its full potential. The gameplay consists of simple puzzle solutions that usually amount to “electrifying a fleshy panel or cutting through a wall of skin in one world to open a path in the other”.
Most of the time, it felt like a one-trick gimmick. I rarely had the feeling of seeing two pictures at the same time. My eyes generally stayed fixed on one side of the screen, and there were seldom consequences for ignoring the other. The best use of the effect is only made in the last cutscene of the game, which particularly underlines how little the idea is used.
It’s a mind-boggling spectacle, but one that never reaches its full potential.
The Bloober team is certainly up to something here and it seems like the studio could develop the idea further in a sequel. Despite this potential, I ended up being much more intrigued by the game’s more lonely sequences. Even with some tense sneaking scenes and some mild supernatural skills, the moments when Marianne simply immersed herself in the tragedy around her felt more haunting than any creepy monster.
If it looks like I haven’t addressed the real horror aspect of the game, it’s because The Medium approaches fear more cerebrally. Instead of relying on cheap fear of jumping, the game relies on effective psychological terror. It’s a grumpy piece that is often troubling just because of its decaying surroundings, from shabby hotel rooms to charred houses soaked in ash. That’s a refreshing change from the kind of fear bait that streamers can use to get millions of views.
The Medium is the first game to really showcase the Xbox Series X’s performance.
Part of that success comes from Team Bloober’s willingness to push the boundaries of new game technologies. The lighting sets the mood thanks to ray tracing, with sharp highlights cutting through strong shadows. The alternative world of the game brings the art of the Polish surrealist Zdzisław Beksiński to life with grotesque details.
Then there’s the dual reality centerpiece, a kind of magic trick that’s usually reserved for tech demos. Even if the gameplay aspect is under-challenged, it is still a powerful spectacle that is only possible on new hardware. Considering the Xbox Series X didn’t launch with any real exclusives, The Medium is the first game that really proves the console’s performance.
Add on an excellent, annoying score and The Medium has all the aesthetic traits of a slow-burn horror hit. This is why its shortcomings are so particularly frustrating. It feels like the game never has enough confidence in itself to get along with the set dressing on its own. There’s always a voice-over to vocalize what the players are seeing and even explain what emotions the settings are trying to evoke. All of the visual information speaks louder than Marianne’s voice and it’s a shame the game is so reluctant to trust its own instincts.
Beneath the layers of hammy dialogue, uncooked retro influence, and tricky design, The Medium is an emotionally challenging horror game that trades genre clichés for real psychological stress. The terrifying aesthetic could lead to a harrowing new franchise, but each sequel should spend less time being the next Silent Hill and more time being the medium.
Is there a better alternative out there?
Resident Evil 2 surpasses its retro vibe and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is more sure to pursue pure psychological horror.
How long it will take?
The story will be over in 8 to 10 hours and there is virtually nothing to come back to when the credits roll in.
Should you buy it?
No, at least not at full price. That said, it’ll be available on Xbox Game Pass when it launches, so it’s worth an odd look at least for horror fanatics and Series X owners looking to boost the console’s performance.