From buff boy puzzler A-Team, through to The Observer, Blair Witch, and the coveted Layers of Fear, it is clear Bloober Team have found their niche. Puzzle titles with slightly unsettling themes are at the core of what the Polish studio delivers; and they often do so with well earned aplomb. However, when you take classic horror video games with fixed camera angles and slightly uncoordinated droning scores into account; failure to launch is more likely. This may largely come down to the fact that these kinds of games are cursed by the burden of living under the shadows of Silent Hill and classic Resident Evil games. Even so, the biggest challenge for any horror game is to find the perfect balance between suspense and proper scares, and combining it with a steady gameplay loop. Fortunately, Bloober Team more than manages to get the genre just-right in their newest horror puzzler: The Medium.
In terms of a suspenseful horror title with puzzle elements, The Medium manages to tick all the correct boxes and then some. It is as much of a psychological horror game as it is a traditional horror game. It features all the spookies from both genres, and mixes them all into the same pot of glue that sticks on a wonderfully crafted narrative.
The Medium throws players squarely into the shoes of Marianne, a medium in 1999 Poland. It centers on her quest for truth as she unravels the mystery behind her own origins. The game sets off after Marianne’s adoptive father passes away. She receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Tom, who instructs her to check out the Niwa Resort; an abandoned hotel home to a mysterious massacre that took place in the past. Intrigued by the thought of someone else knowing about her supernatural abilities, Marianne sets off to find out more. Upon arrival, however, she finds that her supernatural abilities are triggering at an alarming rate. New powers she never even knew she had are making themselves known. My only concern is that the story, while wonderfully suited to the gameplay mechanics, is quite cliche. Anyone familiar with the genre will easily be able to tell where the story is going by the third hour.
As a medium, Marianne has access to two sides of reality: the material world with the strongest ties to the present, and the spirit world with stronger ties to the past. Both realities are ever present with certain events triggering the Spirit side, bringing it to life in spectacular fashion. Doing so splits the screen in two and renders both worlds at the same time. Bloober Team made a big deal out of this dual rendering technique in pre-release materials, and for good reason: the game renders both planes of existence in full at the same time. As you might expect, this requires quite a bit of horsepower to look as good as it does. The Xbox Series X managed to render this spectacularly, while only one or two settings needed to be lowered on my gaming PC. Occasionally, however, an event in the material world will springboard the player into the spirit world exclusively. Whenever this happens, players can be rest assured that Marianne will find her own way back to reality… provided they help her solve some puzzles or get by a few obstacles.
The beauty of The Medium is how the game never really favours one plane of existence over the other. Throughout both of its realities, players will find the brunt of the gameplay split almost perfectly between each reality. Contrary to what players are made to expect from games similar to The Medium, there is a steady stream of narrative all the way through. The game is exceptionally heavy on story right from the get-go. How this blends into the way Marianne needs to find key objects (sometimes literal keys), or get by certain puzzles; really is wonderfully done. With that said, much of the game is spent walking through tight corridors and tiny rooms as Marianne needs to find certain objects that will enable her to continue. Occasionally, the player needs to activate certain objects in one reality in order for Marianne to continue in the other.
There is a nice balance here as the game requires the player to focus on different sides at different intervals. The key, however, is when the game mixes things up a bit and players need to double-check which side requires their attention more. This is especially important when puzzles are at the forefront of the gameplay. However, The Medium also has its fair share of confrontations and more action-oriented bits. Whenever the story takes a backseat for a bit of action, the game will shift to give players a good share of just the one reality. Most of the time, the action will take place in the spirit world, where Marianne will have to fend off against horrendous demons and spirits who were corrupted by what life had in store for them. When diving deeper into the spirit realm like this, players will be besieged will all kinds of evil spirits. Fortunately, the bad spirits are few and far between, with a good helping of good spirits strewn in for good measure.
Marianne may be a medium with no material weapons at her disposal, but she does have quite the arsenal. In the spirit world, players can siphon energy from certain hot spots. This energy is then stored along the feathered cloth around her arm – an aesthetic that persists throughout the spirit world. This energy can then be used to create spirit blasts, echoing time and space in the material world (in terms of puzzle-solving); create a spirit shield for Marianne to protect herself in the spirit world, and to interact with spirits and other objects. Her powers can also be used to scan certain objects for echoes – traces of residual spirit energy left behind by others. Echoes act as collectibles, but also as neat little ways for the game to teach players more about the history of the characters they may be interacting with. Other collectables include postcards and ghostly figures requiring more focus to reanimate. These also serve to add more lore and story to the world of The Medium.
The world surrounding Marianne is also wonderfully realised. From the on-set, players are treated to beautifully rendered scenes which, with the help of the fixed camera angles, look as detailed as pre-rendered photographs. This led me to believe that many of the scenes made use of mixed mediums – particularly pre-rendered backgrounds, with in-game objects at the forefront. This theory is blown out the window when objects in the background start to move as well, however, or when backgrounds are also used to showcase sneaky events players may only notice later. Regardless, it is clear the world is highly detailed and quite visually stunning. It is also incredibly eerie! There is a certain mastery some developers and designers manage to show off when their level design goes beyond the usual “dark corridor with broken light” gimmicks. Bloober Team delivers amicably with well-realised backgrounds and levels that conveys urgency, suspense, and fear.
As touched upon earlier, Marianne sometimes branches off into the spirit world. Whether this happens as a dual-reality scene, or a complete takeover, depends on the events of the game. One thing players will surely notice throughout, however, is how these beautifully realised worlds also extend to the spirit realm. For every pretty corner piece in the material world, there is an equally horrific and beautiful melted candle and/or skeletal structure in the spirit world. For every doorway that is locked, the spirit realm has an energy barrier… that is unless Marianne does a deep-dive. Letting the spirit realm version take over for a while may open a few pathways for Marianne to either explore or progress in. This will do away with the material version (unless the narration dictates it be gone completely), and allows Marianne to explore parts of the world otherwise not accessible. It also serves as a way to show players the spirit world in all its glory. The most disappointing part of this facet of the game is easily the matter of how little players are allowed to explore. While levels are beautiful and well designed, having explorable spaces that open up as players complete puzzles would have been nice.
One aspect of the game that comes off as disappointing is the clear lack of animation in character faces and bodies. While Marianne and Sadness (one of the first supporting characters) are wonderfully animated and showcase great chemistry, it seems like the animation quality falls off rather quickly thereafter. Facials characterises, like blinking and the moving of the lips, also seems off. Voice acting is decent enough, but the voices of some of these characters are as American as can be with no attempt whatsoever at making them sound at least half Polish. It is easy to get used to, but still a far cry away from any performances that are award-worthy.
While not entirely original, The Medium serves as a wonderful experience that marries the best of the classic fixed camera horror titles with brand-new gameplay mechanics and level design. The story is a little bit short and there are one too few explorable locales, but the experience itself remains fun. Bloober Team did a great job at creating yet another suspenseful video game. Everything, from the world [both of them] to the way the characters are designed to interact with it, and everything in between, show a lot of dedication. Voices may be a bit weak, and animation does leave a lot to be desired, but The Medium is a must-have for fans of the classic horror genre. It is a slow and methodical game with a decent pay off at the end. The Medium may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it most assuredly fills a niche no longer catered for by the likes of Capcom or Konami.
|Incredible visuals||Animations could use a bit of work|
|Gameplay plays well with level design||Needs more exploration|
|Dual Rendering system is a great unique take on the genre|
Title reviewed on Xbox Series X with code supplied by Bloober Team.