The Medium Review $49.99
Game title: The Medium
Game description: Discover a dark mystery only a medium can solve. Travel to an abandoned communist resort and use your unique psychic abilities to uncover its deeply disturbing secrets, solve dual-reality puzzles, survive encounters with sinister spirits, and explore two realities at the same time.
It's On the Rare Side
Horror is a genre that is exceptionally hard to do well in games. Balancing suspense and danger to create an enjoyable gameplay experience is not easy. It’s also something that, until relatively recently, games have had trouble balancing. Bloober Team’s newest horror game, The Medium, performs this balancing before collapsing for no good reason in the final moments.
Set in Bloober Team’s native Poland in the 1990s, The Medium is a story about Marianne and her attempt to discover the mystery behind her mysterious power to exist in both the world of the living and sort of spirit realm where lost souls linger before being sent on. Marianne has lived with this power for as long as she can remember. One day, when returning home to finish preparations for her adopted father’s funeral, she receives a phone call, calling her to Niwa, a defunct worker’s resort. It’s a set-up reminiscent of Silent Hill, which is welcome as it’s been so long since we’ve had one of those games, which is appropriate since Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka handled the music for the game.
Further drifting into Silent Hill territory, The Medium employs the use of multiple worlds within the game. Unlike the world of Silent Hill, which often drifts and changes between its real-world and hellish counterparts, The Medium creates two distinct worlds that you can play in Tandem. The worlds share general geometry but use unique art. It’s an impressive implementation, requiring the game to render two different versions of the world at once. At times you can separate your spirit self from your corporeal form and investigate the spirit world separately for a brief time, which is when this dualworld begins to impress rather than feel like a simple gimmick.
Put simply; The Medium is a walking simulator with light puzzle elements eighty percent of the time. You spend most of your time exploring spooky areas, finding objects with echoes of the past ingrained in them, which fleshes out the story of Niwa and the people there before the infamous Niwa massacre that left it abandoned in disrepair. In fact, it would probably be better if it stuck to being a walking simulator. The controls are not well suited for the forced stealth sections. While you may not die in most situations, things are just fiddly enough that the risk is there. Luckily the game has a decent checkpoint system, so you aren’t left in the cold. The stealth sections mostly just feel superfluous and arbitrary at times, especially later in the game. It’s one of the biggest problems for horror games—the need to create tension while balancing it with enjoyable gameplay that isn’t too punishing. The moment you need to replay a section because of a death, it begins to lose its appeal. Unskippable (albeit short) cutscenes in certain moments make random deaths even more frustrating. The stealth and tension end up getting in the way of the rest of the experience.
There are several interweaving narratives which you’ll uncover during your time exploring Niwa, and they all end up drawing an uncomfortable conclusion. The Medium is a game with relatively little danger, so when you encounter one of the few monstrous creatures throughout the game, they take the time to flesh them out and attempt to explain them. Unfortunately, the game leaves us with this idea; trauma turns us into Monsters. We may not like it, or we may embrace it. Either way, Monsters we become, personally unaccountable for our actions and unable to recover of our own volition.
Marianne uses her powers to help lost souls move on to the afterlife, using that same power to dispel the Monsters holding dominion over Niwa and the surrounding area. Not only does trauma give birth to Monsters, but those same Monsters also outlive us.
It is unquestionably a story about the impact of World War II and the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland in the 20th century. Much of the story and lore of Niwa and Marianne are deeply entrenched in this history. Still, without being better versed in Poland’s socio-economic history, it’s not one that I can adequately unpack. Marianne, for her part, represents a new generation of Poles raised by people traumatized by World War II and the political turmoil of the 1970s but not experiencing it themselves. She is left to navigate the lives and trauma of those that came before her. All this with the hope of understanding who she is.
But the game doesn’t posit that this new generation “has it easy” or anything of the sort. They, too, can be traumatized and create Monsters. This becomes distressing because the game says that the ONLY way to move past the trauma is death. There’s no magic wand to wave; of course, nothing is that easy. But according to The Medium, attempting to move on or recover from your trauma is impossible. Forgiveness can dramatically affect recovering from traumatic incidents, but the game refuses even to entertain the idea. One character has managed to harness their trauma and live with it but ultimately cannot keep it from harming others.
The Medium is a technical showpiece that shows some of the possibilities of gaming with new consoles with faster storage solutions available. Unfortunately, the PC’s performance is riddled with glitches, and it sounds like even the Xbox Series X plays the game at sub 1080p resolution and sub 720p on Xbox Series S. Despite these issues, the environments are beautiful in a haunting way. The performances by the voice actors and the music are all exceptional.
The game is let down by its insistence on inserting stealth sequences and a pace that is just too slow to be that enjoyable during less tense gameplay. Paired with a story with a less than stellar outlook on personal trauma and how it impacts us, The Medium is hard to recommend.
- Dual world mechanic shows promise for the future of games
- Performances are well done
- Well realized world
- Dismissive/harmful attitudes toward trauma survivors
- forced stealth sequences
- performance issues