Horror as a genre can imply a few different things when it comes to games. You have your classic slasher games, where a creature or person seeks you out for death. Then there is zombie horror, similar to slasher games but instead of one foe you have thousands. Finally, you have phycological horror games. These really get into your brain and make you feel terrified, oftentimes without the developers showing their work.
Bloober Team creates a sense of eeriness and fright, simply by utilizing environments and terrifying backstories. There may be a creature or something lurking, but it’s not necessarily present. The idea of it IS, though. And this is what The Medium seeks to deliver; horror, bound only by your imagination.
The Medium has a quite interesting story, that begins with the protagonist Marianne putting her foster father to rest. She combs through his apartment, looking for his tie clip. This cleverly outlines the basic controls of the game before jumping into any real action. The environments are carefully crafted, and you have to seek out clues to guide you along.
It’s in this opening apartment scene you learn of Marianne’s power of Insight. She can see things that are hidden to the naked eye. The Medium throws you into this world, with Marianne evidently comfortable with her ability. But they don’t drop any lengthy backstory as to how or when she got them. That mystery is for the player to unravel.
Another intriguing display of Marianne’s powers is on display in the funeral home, where her foster father Jack lies, waiting burial. Here, the player learns about Marianne’s second ability of communicating with multiple worlds. She sets his spirit free into the after-life. Tough day for Marianne, but it’s about to get tougher.
She receives a phone call from a mysterious stranger, Thomas. He says he understands her powers and pleads with her to come to Niwa, an abandoned vacation resort, to learn more. This event puts in motion the rest of the story, but does so in a subtle way. Learning the basic controls in a story-infused fashion really pulls you into the world. The man on the phone sounded terrified, which also adds a level of mystery.
Arriving at the Niwa resort, it seems like a scene out of The Walking Dead. Abandoned buildings in the middle of a forest, and sights of wandering individuals in the distance put players on edge early. Unraveling the past, Marianne explores the confines of Niwa, learning more and more about what happened here. Without getting to heavily into spoilers, it’s good to remember that you were summoned here. And the stories you are learning may hit closer to home than presented.
Once in Niwa, Marianne is immediately thrust into an alternate world. This is the darker side of her spirit-guiding powers. One that is triggered for seemingly unknown reasons. Learning the basics of playing two worlds at once is a breeze. Every movement is identical, and the layout of the spirit world is the same, albeit more grim.
The first challenge I encounter is opening a gate. It’s locked, and I have no means to open it. But I find a power box that seems to be down… if only there were some way to power it up. Using Marianne’s spirt body, I shimmy along a ledge and find glowing orb. This is a spirit well, a power source of sorts. Marianne is able to pull this energy into herself (in the spirit world), deliver it to to the power box (in the spirit world), and juice up the power box (in the real world).
This type of puzzle-play is where The Medium really shines. Throughout the course of unravelling the mysteries of Niwa, Marianne must work through both worlds to find clues and solve puzzles. Most puzzles are fairly straightforward, but some had me thinking longer than I care to admit.
One ability Marianne eventually learns is the power to leave her real body. Using this power, her spirit body passes through areas blocked in the real world. For example, a closed door or bookcase protecting a secret passage are passable in the spirt world when blocked in real life. But there is a limit to this power; stay ‘out-of-body’ too long and Marianne will die.
I thought this was a unique touch, forcing players to look and think quickly. Autosaves are sparse in The Medium, and dying reverts you back to sometimes annoyingly-far points. So keep an eye on how far the real world fades to black while exploring out of body.
While the puzzles are a highlight of The Medium, they can also be infuriating. Throughout the world, there are every day objects which have hidden stories. Using Insight, you can hear these stories, known as echoes, that give you dialogue of people talking about past events.
Back to infuriating puzzles, I find an echo and immediately pair it’s dialogue together with other clues in a room. Thinking I have solved the puzzle, I proceed back through the level. But because I didn’t interact with objects in the right order, I never truly progressed. These types of order-sensitive issues happened a few times, and always frustrated me.
Outside of puzzles, The Medium also relies on a bit of light platforming and stealth. The Maw, a terrifying creature that is always lurking, occasionally joins Marianne on screen. Part of the story is finding out why The Maw is hunting her. These brief interactions usually direct the player to escape an area without being spotted (otherwise, you are basically dead). Hiding behind ledges, climbing upon objects, and even holding your breath help Marianne escape. I thought Bloober Team did a good job with these moments. Although, the lengthy climbing sequence (timed at about 5 seconds) is very tedious.
All in, the gameplay is pretty unique and enjoyable to immerse yourself in. The balance of puzzles and exploration with occasional escape sequences and a wild story keeps players pulled in. The Medium is also achievement-happy, and I earned 800/1000 gamerscore on my first playthrough.
Visuals, Controls, & Sound
Playing The Medium during the daytime is probably not the best idea. The game is generally dark, and I can only imagine how good it would look on an OLED TV. But with my 1080p HD setup (yes, I’m playing a XSX on a non-4k TV), the game still looks very nice. It would benefit from a display with darker blacks sure, but really only in hallways and some interior settings. A lot of the game is played outside, and you do not notice the brightness issues quite as much. One scene towards the end of the game has light reflecting off a lake, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The XSX hyped Ray Tracing is at full work here.
The camera is a bit off-putting, and was hard to adjust to with modern camera setups. Think back to the fixed camera of early Resident Evil games. It’s not the best, and I certainly would have preferred them utilizing a more traditional over-the-shoulder camera view.
I encountered some known graphical glitches during my playthrough. Trying to render two worlds at once is quite the feat, and I saw occasional flashes of rainbow light in one or sometimes both worlds. This was annoying more than anything, and did not affect my ability to play. It typically persisted throughout a room, but moving to another area would kill the issue.
Controls in The Medium are pretty straightforward. Interacting with objects and running are the primary tools players use throughout. With the aforementioned camera challenges I had, running can also be tricky with the ever-changing camera placement.
For example, I would be holding up on the left stick to run forward. Entering a new room, the camera would flip to looking back at me, causing my brain to short-circuit. I reflexively switch the direction of my thumb and start running backwards. This happens all the time, and it’s hard to train your brain to work with the camera.
The sounds of The Medium are downright scary at times. The creepy voices of spirit children, growls and screams of The Maw, and plenty more keep you on edge. The voice actor playing Marianne does a knockout job though. I really believed the fear and emotional breakdown of her character throughout the game.
The Medium is a very good psychological horror game. The story keeps you guessing the entire time, and the ending is one to stick around for. Playing the same character in two worlds simultaneously is a unique twist, and only possible on console thanks to the next-gen (current-gen?) hardware. The puzzles are plentiful, and while most are good, some are rage-inducing. The Medium looks aesthetically pleasing, but would be best played on a TV with good black levels. The fixed-camera is one of the biggest flaws of the game, but not enough to detract anyone from playing.
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