If there’s one thing horror games can have trouble with, it’s failing to figure out how to properly balance a variety of gameplay features when needed. This seems to stem from the fact that horror isn’t a gameplay genre on its own, so they kind of lose focus on what the central mechanic or even theme should be a times, resulting in an awkward “kitchen sink” approach. I’ve noticed this in games like Call of Cthulhu, The Beast Inside, or more relevant to this review, Blair Witch from developers Bloober Team. What started out as a promising adventure game with little moments of combat devolved into more stealth-oriented fare as it advanced, before basically just turning into a P.T. knockoff in its last act.
Crafting horror games can be tricky at times, which is why one may be concerned with The Medium, Bloober’s latest attempt at the subgenre. Not only are they striving at crafting an effective horror tale with a better balance this time around, as mentioned in our preview, but they’re also tasked with having to provide one of the early successes of the ninth console generation, especially with Halo Infinite’s delay. It has an attention-grabbing gimmick — centering the game around a psychic medium and thus having the player maneuver through two worlds at once — which gives it more focus, but can that still translate into both a terrifying and entertaining game in the end?
Set in Poland during the late 1990s, the game centers around our titular medium, Marianne. After their adopted father figure passes away, she receives a mysterious phone call telling her to check out the abandoned Niwa Resort, which was seemingly almost immediately covered up after a mysterious massacre. She heads there in search of possible answers to a mystery, but quickly finds their psychic abilities triggered instead, splitting them into two selves, one in reality and one in the spirit world. In the latter, they find a mysterious girl known only as Sadness, who invites them to come view something. Will it explain what happened at Niwa? Will we learn the secret behind Sadness? What about the mysterious man who invited Marianne to begin with? And will Marianne turn out to have any sort of relation to everything here?
Without any spoilers, the answer to that last question is a resounding “Yes.” Arguably, The Medium isn’t exactly that original when it comes to the use of its various horror tropes. Protagonist with a dark connection to a spooky place? Check! Creepy porcelain masks? Check! Character with an abusive parent as a backstory? Check! Unsettling children’s crayon drawings that you can collect? Check! While this all may sound like a knock against the game, it’s important to remember that tropes are tools, and while the The Medium’s choice of ingredients may not be the most inspired, the main dish overall remains enjoyable, an impressive and well-executed experience and story that you can sink your teeth into (though speaking of food, one section revolving around the serial killer/pig/slaughterhouse connection does sort of come out of nowhere and feels like it exists only to check off a box, in contrast to the other moments).
Of course, part of the reason The Medium succeeds in creating its delectable dish of horror is due to its presentation. Now, this may be a shock, but one of the first games of this new console generation that was specifically designed to display two worlds at once just happens to have ridiculously good graphics. Even on my gaming laptop from a couple of years ago with lower specs, it still manages to flex and show off its stunning visuals. There are a few split-screen dual-world scenes that do sort of drift into “tech demo” territory, but for the majority of the time it can easily pop some eyeballs. While the ruins of the Niwa Resort look impressive, it’s the spirit world that truly shines, drawing inspiration from Polish surreal artist Zdzisław Beksiński.
Organic lumps and flesh are everywhere amongst apocalyptic remains, with hues of a hellish orange and red everywhere, though a few areas shake things up…though that potentially ventures into spoiler territory. It’s a demented and twisted version of the material world, where photographs can be rune-like drawings, desks can resemble altars, a globe is now a weird puzzle with a face on it, and more dark delights, all on display with an insane amount of detail. The split-screen moments where you wander through both worlds at the same time truly highlight the differences in styles, as well as the differences between areas, nicely drawing attention to the theme of perspectives. And yes, seeing the game perfectly sync up the worlds and Marianne’s movements in them is amazing as well.
Of course, the themes of perspectives and perception aren’t just limited to visuals. The unique dual world design means that whenever the game switches to split-screen mode, displaying both worlds, you have to pay attention to key differences in either. One item and a prompt to pick it up may only be in a certain world, or one opening may be closed in another. Sometimes you’ll have to find ways to alter one world through actions in the other, like putting a dried sunflower in a vase to create a spirit well in the spirit world that gives Marianne the juice they need to bypass an obstacle there, or cutting a flesh wall open with a razor (with some pointless resistance, admittedly), to create a proper passage for the two selves to advance. Or in one section, even using a clock in reality to shift the spirit world to different states, complete with ghostly figures of the past showing up at different times.
These figures are one of the many little collectibles of sorts detailing the stories of everyone involved in the Niwa Resort, relying you to orient them in order to get discussion related to past events. There are also “echoes” you can find by listening for whispers and using Marianne’s instinct ability to detect the correct spot to view (and highlight trails in other areas), also providing a look at further moments, alongside the usual lot of documents and postcards. The story does hit nicely creepy moments, and is intriguing and well-told, especially as one gets a clear picture of key figures. It soon becomes clear that there are supernatural forces at play, and they kept me hooked as I kept going, determined to learn more about Marianne, Sadness and others.
The Medium does go heavy on the narrative, placing the focus more on story and exploration, with the horror coming more from surreal sights, atmosphere and a sense of dread, which is welcome. It’s actually important to realize that The Medium is arguably more of a graphic adventure game that one may expect, with a lot more focus being on puzzles as well. Not the most complex puzzles, with several having you hunt for an item and take it to a certain spot, but there are some winners. In particular, there’s particularly amazing puzzles where you have to to shift between individual worlds using various mirrors in order to get information needed for the other world. No it’s not always challenging, but things are always entertaining, and again, they perfectly highlight the approach to dual worlds.
The same can be said for the confrontational bits. Sadness isn’t the only notable figure lurking in the spirit world. The other would be a massive hellbeast known as The Maw, voiced by Troy Baker, who spectacularly hams it up and going against type as a demonic Jack Torrance, hunting Marianne and promising to wear her, among other things. They’re visible in the spirit world, but invisible in reality, where they’re blind to Marianne. I admit I was initially dreading these moments, but thankfully, these parts are nice and brief while still remaining tense, taking different forms as Marianne either runs away from them in the spirit world or tries to sneak around them in the real world. Encounters with creatures like these can end up derailing a good story (SOMA, anyone?), but here they’re perfectly paced and fun.
The more action-oriented sequences in them, be they stealth-based or more Uncharted-esque, aren’t that taxing, but this sort of acts as a double-edged sword. These sections may not be annoyingly difficult, but they can also be too easy, to the point were certain gameplay features are undermined. The game reminds you that if you have any energy, you can use a spirit blast against enemies, but I got through every encounter with The Maw without having to use any of them defensively, only needing them for flipping energy on during puzzles and the like. Similarly, the spirit shield only comes into play when getting past the deadly but stationary swarms of moths in the spirit world.
The lack of challenge in these areas also extends to other areas, like how Marianne’s out-of-body experiences can only last so long before they die. But every time I was required to undertake one, the path I needed to take in the spirit world was fairly linear, and Marianne’s astral self can return to their original point at the push of a button, keeping whatever they gained. It kind of makes one question if The Medium actually needed death states and that maybe it should have just gone full graphic adventure. Or maybe it’s the fact that while the brevity alone doesn’t hurt it — it clocks in at just over eight hours, nine if going for one hundred percent — it does mean some concepts aren’t given room to grow further.
For example, one early set of puzzles involves having to return a mask belonging to a dead person in the spirit world to its rightful place, and having to learn their name so Marianne can perform an exorcism in order to help the spirit move on. It’s a neat puzzle idea that ties into Marianne’s abilities as a medium…but it only appears twice before being abandoned at the midway point. I guess you could say that The Medium does still have the occasional pacing and balance issue, but it never becomes too noticeable or interferes with the gameplay much.
There’s one more flaw of note in The Medium that is noticeable, though, and that would be the voice acting. It all sounded fine at first, nothing bad or anything that stood out, until a point where one character said “comrade” in the most blatantly American voice and accent possible. And as the conversation then continued, it suddenly hit me that despite despite a game set in Poland with Polish characters and coming from Polish developers, absolutely no one in this game was attempting a Polish accent. Or even any Eastern European accent of any kind.
Around the halfway point, Polish/European history and organizations start getting involved in the plot more and more, and to say the mismatched voices break some of the immersion at that point is an understatement. It almost gets cartoonish, like experiencing the English language version of Nioh 2 where every Japanese character now inexplicably had a British voice. For a game that does well at building a creepy, surreal atmosphere in every other area, the voices during these feel as jarring as a version of Hereditary that cuts to a random clip from Family Matters every fifteen minutes or so. The Medium may be a great game overall, but it could’ve used a better cast.
One could argue that outside of its creative double-world approach, The Medium isn’t the sort of revolutionary horror game that one might hope for from the start of a new generation in gaming. But you know what? It doesn’t need to be revolutionary. It just needs to be spooky, have fun gameplay and tell an entertaining story, and Bloober Team succeeds on all of those fronts. Of course, it helps that it easily has what one can say will be some of the year’s best visuals, as well as an eerie soundtrack featuring the likes of Akira Yamaoka. The Medium is a quick yet astonishing trip through a pair of engrossing worlds where practically every element comes together nicely, and it’s all worth taking some looks at.