The Medium is stuck between two types of video games. It seems like a throwback to classic, claustrophobic horror titles such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil, but it also feels like a more modern non-combat, narrative-focused scary game. The end result is a game that feels middle of the road. This is disappointing, because it contains some great ideas and has a strong second half. But too much of the game buries these bright spots under stretches of boredom.
Developed by Bloober Team, the horror specialists behind Layers of Fear and the recent Blair Witch game, The Medium is something different. Where those previous games were focused on first-person gameplay, The Medium is a third-person game that uses static camera angles, giving the game a retro-feel. Adding to this feeling, the entire storyline of the game is set in Poland during the late-90s when classic survival horror games like Silent Hill were popular.
In The Medium, you play as Marianne, a woman who is also a medium, able to connect and interact with dead people, their spirits, and the “other side.” In fact, she can actually traverse the other side of reality, directly interacting with the dead and helping them move on. This is a major part of the game, with the screen splitting in two, as you play in both the real world and spirit world at the same time. In action, it’s impressive and might be one of the reasons this game is only playable on the new Xbox Series X and S and not the Xbox One, as I assume rendering two worlds at once takes extra power older machines might lack.
The game starts after the death of Marianne’s adoptive father. She gets a mysterious phone call from someone at Newa, an abandoned government-run vacation lodge. Once she arrives, it becomes clear that this place hides some dark secrets and a lot of suffering. Quickly, using your powers, you befriend a young girl who goes by the name of Sadness and who helps guide you around Newa, as you meet other, nastier spirits and characters. Along the way, a dangerous entity known only as The Creature hunts you down, both in the spirit world and the real world. To stop this deadly monster and help Sadness move on, you’ll have to uncover all the deep, dark secrets of Newa and confront your own past. Doing so involves a lot of door and key puzzles.
The Medium’s story takes a while to get anywhere, with the first half filled with vagueness, cliches. But once the creature begins showing up more and I learned about Sadness and her family, The Medium’s tale hooked me. Then the ending, which feels rushed, brought back my disappointment, as it ends in all too vague a manner. Boo! Don’t make me care about your characters, world, and story only to pull the plug at the last minute and leave me hanging.
I try to not spoil games too much when reviewing them, but I do feel obligated to mention that a part of the game’s narrative involves a pedophile and their victim as well as that person’s history. Their connection to the story is impossible to ignore and while the game never shares explicit details or imagery, thankfully, it’s still alluded to and mentioned multiple times. It’s all gross and sadly never gets fully resolved. Consider this a content warning. If pedophilia, even minor mentions or references to it, is something you want to avoid, and I don’t blame you, The Medium is probably a game you should skip.
To reach the unsatisfying conclusion, you’ll have to play through a lot of empty areas and backtracking-based puzzles. Do you like searching for keys and levers over and over? I hope so, because that’s a lot of what you do in this game. Another issue is that The Medium’s main creature is scary, but is also the only real threat in the entire game. That lack of a threat, combined with the simplistic puzzle design, makes too much of the game a bore. There are no random zombies or ghostly demons to fight. There’s essentially no-combat at all, outside of some areas that have you burning ghost moths with spirit energy. This means a lot of time is spent running around larger-than-necessary levels, with no threat of death or failure, trying to desperately find the one small item needed to press forward. Often, any feelings of fear quickly turned to frustration and boredom as I searched around maze-like areas looking for a valve or small piece of paper. The static cameras don’t help, as I often found myself getting lost in some areas when the camera wildly flipped to a new angle or didn’t flip soon enough, so I watched as my character walked off-screen.
The real saving grace for The Medium and its mediocre puzzles is the use of the spirit world. This is the big hook, and it’s genuinely cool and fresh. Throughout The Medium, Marrianne will occasionally “split” herself between two realms. One is the boring real world, the other is a strange dimension that looks a lot like Hell as it appeared in the Keanu Reeves film Constantine. One Marrianne stays in the real world while another ghostly one explores, at the same time, the spirit realm.
The two-world system spices up what would have been more plain puzzles. For example, in the real world, there might be a locked door, but in the spirit world, it’s an open entryway. So you can temporarily leave your body and walk around as just a spirit, potentially unlocking a new path or getting an item you needed from the spirit world to the real world. Other times you’ll need to find something in the real world to unlock a path or item in the spirit world.
Sadly, I never felt like the game truly took advantage of its two-reality system. There’s no big final level that tests all your spirit world knowledge and skills. And that might be because outside of a few instances where you use your spirit self to shoot some energy or burn some moths, there’s not much else to do in the game. You walk around, you pick up stuff, you read some notes and in a few small instances, you get some cutscenes through the eyes of someone else. This simplicity, coupled with a lack of combat, one enemy who is fairly easy to avoid and areas that look good but are filled with the same puzzles over and over made me lose interest.
It’s a shame, because I did enjoy the world Bloober Team had created and many of the cutscenes were fantastic. I also dug the idea of playing in two different realities at once. But so much of The Medium just didn’t connect with me. Horror games shouldn’t be boring or frustrating, yet that’s what I felt a lot over the nine hours it took to finish the game. Some wonky controls and performance issues didn’t help improve things either.
In a different reality, I could see this game being something special. And it might, like so many other horror games and movies, go on to become a cult classic. But in this realm, for me, it just doesn’t come together.