The Medium, available on PC and the Xbox Series consoles (and as a day-one title on Xbox Game Pass), is described as a “psychological horror”. However, despite gameplay trailers showing off classic fixed camera angles, it remains a linear, narrative-driven game that relies on a creepy atmosphere and rare jump-scares – much like Bloober Team’s prior games.
The Medium starts strong, with protagonist Marianne returning to her foster father’s funeral home – in Krakow, Poland – to prepare his body for burial. The opening frames the action as Marianne retelling her story to a mysterious figure in the future, as she recounts her recurrent dream about a murdered girl. This prologue will get you comfortable with the new perspective, somewhat stiff controls, and reveals several titbits about Marianne’s life. There are also a few basic puzzles to solve, and you’ll get to experience Marianne’s ability to exist in both the physical and spirit world.
The Medium excels at creating environments that feel grounded in reality (the physical world at any rate).
This opening sequence also makes it clear Marianne is not your conventional horror-game protagonist. She’s strong, selfless, and – having possessed her abilities since childhood – has helped many spirits pass on, convey messages to their loved ones, and is familiar with the weird manifestation in the spirit world. Marianne receives a desperate call from a man named “Thomas”, who is aware of her abilities and the dream, asking her to find him at a former government-sponsored worker’s retreat, “Niwa”, as she is the only one who can stop the approaching darkness.
Abandoned suddenly in the late 1960s, and the source of several urban legends about a massacre, this grim Soviet-style resort and surrounding grounds are the setting for the rest of the game. Marianne sets off into the ruins of the resort, following the ghostly footsteps of a child and, in a major change from typical horror-game conventions, she takes it in her stride. Sure, Marianne acknowledges the creepy locations, the twisted manifestations in the spirit world, and is frightened by the appearance of an aggressive demon-like entity, but she pushes on regardless.
You frequently switch to the first-person viewpoint to interact with puzzle elements, follow clues, and occasionally have the crap scared of you.
Marianne’s strength, coupled with the limited number of sequences in which you can die, works against the horror elements. It is a decision that will no doubt prove divisive, but I found it made her a novel and enjoyable protagonist. From a gameplay perceptive, however, it means The Medium lacks that constant sense of threat you feel in survival-horror games and relies on elaborate puzzles and frequent narrative beats. That’s not to say the game can’t feel tense, a sensation helped a lot by the Silent Hill-style fixed-camera angles, but the new perspective is primarily there to facilitate the dual-world puzzles.
When the game introduces the dual-world view or provides a means to switch between them at certain points, Marianne can manipulate objects or find key items across both the physical and spirit realm. Unnavigable areas in one are often traversable in the other, and you can briefly engage in an out-of-body experience to move her spirit form independently. These spirit world segments can catch you by surprise and contain the most elaborate puzzles, which often require you to hunt for key objects, follow a trail of clues, read important notes, or circumvent spectral obstacles. To ensure you don’t get stuck, Marianne has an “insight” ability that allows her to track spectral trails and highlight hidden objects.
The spirit world is full of spiritual echoes you’ll want to find. Not only do they offer puzzle solutions, they also flesh out several secondary characters.
Traversal and puzzling get more challenging when you encounter The Maw. This is a demon-like manifestation – formed from intense emotions of grief, guilt, and rage – stalks Marianne in certain parts of the Niwa resort. These encounters can be chase sequences in the spirit world, in which The Maw can see your spirit form, or stealth-focussed sequences in the physical world, in which The Maw appears as a semi-translucent presence that can’t see Marianne’s physical form directly.
It is during these sequences The Medium demonstrates more traditional horror design but encounters with The Maw are limited. Sure, it appears to be stalking Marianne throughout the resort – cursing her and explaining it wants to “wear her skin” – but gameplay sequences only task you with moving stealthily through a few rooms before it disappears (you can even backtrack for collectables and find it has vanished). This means The Medium has to move at a brisk pace, with frequent narrative twists and turns, to keep your attention. This does include two sequences you play as another protagonist, delving into the fate of some secondary characters years before.
Swarms of energy-sapping moths are another manifestation of The Maw you need to circumvent while exploring.
A big part of The Medium’s impact is the presentation and, despite some limitations on how appealing you can make grim, soviet-style utilitarian buildings appear, it often looks incredible. The physical world is highly detailed, while the spirit world is constructed of organic-looking materials (think flesh, tendons, and bone), inspired by the work of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. The concept of rendering two distinct worlds has been The Medium’s major selling point, and it looks impressive (though the Xbox Series consoles will see heavy dynamic resolution drops). The voice-work is great though the lip-syncing is rough, while the ambient audio is suitably chilling and the atmospheric soundtrack features composer Akira Yamaoka (who previously worked on several Silent Hill games).
Every location feels impeccably designed but you pay a price for the cluttered environment, atmospheric lighting, dual-world view, and ray-traced reflections (on the Xbox Series X or PC if you have got the GPU for it). There are some obvious flaws, like Marianne’s stiff walking animation and her ability to get stuck on scenery; as well as some unexpected textures load delays (even on the snazzy new custom SSDs in the Xbox Series consoles). The dual-world sections, in particular, can hammer the framerate, while sequences in the spirit world tend to perform better than those in the physical world. The Medium desperately needs a decent benchmark sequence so you can optimise your settings for all gameplay possibilities.
The Medium is a technically impressive game but it’s the visual designs that impressed the most.
Overall, The Medium is a satisfying narrative-driven horror experience, with about 8-hours of gameplay on offer (plus another hour or two if you go off the beaten path for some collectables). It is, however, a strictly linear experience. It’s short enough to warrant a replay, but becomes significantly less tense and exciting once you realise how few sequences there are in which you’re actually in danger. Thankfully, the dual-world concept is both technically impressive and allows for some interesting puzzles. So long as you don’t go in expecting a traditional survival-horror game – with resource management and constant danger – the great protagonist, twisting narrative, and elaborate puzzles make it a worthwhile experience (especially if you’ve got an active Xbox Game Pass subscription).
Grab The Medium here on Xbox Series X/S either through Game Pass or for £41.74 (Discounts Not included in price)
The Game is developed and published by Bloober Team
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