Following the relative success of Layers of Fear and Blair Witch, Bloober Team have made themselves somewhat of a penchant for developing strong horror-themed titles. The Medium was their next foray into the genre, though this time the focus was on psychological thriller elements above traditional terror-inducing scares.
Releasing in January 2021 to Xbox and PC platforms, The Medium has finally spirited its apparition onto the PS5 console. So, was this other-worldly descent into dark realms worth the wait? Let’s throw our souls into the divide and discover the answer.
It should be noted, I’m a huge fan of all things horror and psychological thriller, so The Medium was a game I was eagerly awaiting to release on Sony’s consoles to try out for myself. There’s equal numbers of incredible traits as well as disappointing pitfalls associated with the genres, so finding the balance (or… Medium, if you will) is always essential to getting a title of this type right.
Welcome To The Void
The Medium has an interesting, if slow, opening. We’re introduced to our protagonist, Marianne, who has the unique ability to traverse not just the known, human reality, but also the twisted, spirit reality, occupied by those who have died but not “passed onto the other side”. The introduction is slow, subtle and enticing, drawing you into the world and universe that Marianne inhabits, while also plotting some emotional roots for our lead. Naturally (or not so naturally), things quickly take a turn for the strange and supernatural. Marianne is swept off to the Niwa resort following an ambiguous, ominous phone call from a supposed stranger pleading for help.
The initial narrative is somewhat routine, but delivered well. As you arrive at the Niwa resort and hotel, you’ll have little to no understanding of your role or purpose there, which sits well alongside Marianne’s scepticism and bewilderment. As the story develops however, things start to pick up significantly. The opening third has you taking on the superficial, surface layer of knowledge, before the second and third acts begin to entangle you in a psychological web of character arcs, mysterious occurrences and intimidating events.
All of which is to say, the story of The Medium was very good. I experienced a range of emotions from shock, disgust, anguish and empathy for the themes the game tackled. There’s some truly dark and twisted goings on in the world of Niwa’s history which you’ll slowly uncover as you progress. Despite its more disturbing narrative arcs, the world, history and characters are handled exceptionally well, with a lot of the context required by the player to piece together to make sense of. What I appreciated most, was how my view and empathy towards its central characters shifted throughout. Turns out, right and wrong, good and bad can become mightily twisted when it comes to dimensional hopping history.
Break On Through, To The Spirit Side
As a medium, Marianne has the capability to see both the real and spiritual world. Sometimes both at once, other times one or the other. This allows her, and us as the players, to observe the events of the real with the ethereal. This acts as a neat narrative tool to deliver context and history of the resort as well as the personalities of the people who inhabit it.
Collectibles are also used to intrinsically rewarding effect – each set of notes, postcards and memos act as exposition for particular people or the world as you explore. It adds an extra layer of depth to the motivations behind what you uncover in an organic way. I rarely see collectibles as more than content-filler in most games, but The Medium utilises them in such a way that paying attention to them adds a significant amount to the overall narrative. By the end, I was pleased I’d spent the time seeking so many of them out, as they unearthed a lot more understanding of the central story than I’d have ever expected them to.
I’ve been very careful to avoid mentioning anything spoiler worthy, as this is a story that’s worth experiencing blind for yourself. It isn’t perfect, with some parts feeling slightly contrived or with some blunt elements, but subjectively it had me engrossed from the second hour right through to the last. Clocking in about 6-7 hours, The Medium’s story does a solid and emotionally-inducing job of holding your attention and keeping you intrigued, with the finale sequence tying a lot together and leaving just enough ambiguity to have you sifting through the details for answers that may, or may not, be there. Basically, it’s excellent stuff. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s worth finding out for yourself.
Much of the storytelling is aided greatly by the sense of atmosphere and place Bloober Team have achieved. The Niwa resort is largely haunting, desolate and decrepit. As you wander through its many hallways and areas, there’s a heavy sense of foreboding and an aura of tragic history that permeates the building. In some ways, it harkens back to old school Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles, using fixed camera angles and linear progression to set up areas of time-inflicted ruin and decay.
Which makes sense, as The Medium takes place in 1999 post-communism Poland. The old history of socialistic ideals and practicalities of the nation at the time ooze out of the level design. It may not be the most creative, nor the most aesthetically pleasing undertaking, but it certainly places you within the time period it’s set in. Again, it’s great stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed venturing through these dank, uncomfortable settings.
Down The Gameplay Rabbit Hole
And that’s just the real world. One of The Medium’s core mechanics is Marianne’s ability to visit (or exist in?) the spiritual realm. While the reality of Niwa is broken down, industrial and cold, the spiritual world is twisted, filled with skulls, flesh and blood. The colour palette and contrast is striking, with the spirit world presented as horrifying and soul-trapping. A lot of work was placed into recreating the same areas in a whole new perspective and works effectively at demonstrating the suffering of those caught in the spirit realm, detached from the cold reality.
Not just an aesthetic mechanic however, the use of two simultaneous realms is the core of The Medium’s gameplay. Marianne will be forced to traverse both worlds, sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously. These scenarios offer the game’s puzzle opportunities: traversing one landscape may be possible for one version of Marianne but not the other. Moving objects, switching between worlds to pick up items and figuring out how best to manoeuvre Marianne therefore becomes necessary to progress through the story.
It sounds great, in theory. Unfortunately, most of the traversal and exploration of these dual worlds is simplistic and linear, which feels like a missed opportunity. When entering a new wing of the resort for example, there were 4 doorways linked to progress. This could have been a chance to really test the player’s understanding of the mechanics and utilise some creative problem-solving techniques. Sadly, it became a step-by-step, by the numbers routine. Enter the spirit world to get through door 1, get item, open door 2, interact with object, clear door 3, get power up to move through exit. Much of the puzzle exploration feels clearly defined and obvious, leaving little chance for rewarding gameplay.
It lets down the potential of what the dual world gameplay could have offered, especially when the narrative is so motivating but the means of getting there just feels underwhelming.
There are a few mechanics at your disposal which you’ll need to make use of. Insight is an ability Marianne possesses which can aid her in finding items or spotting interactable areas of the environment. It usually boils down to going over to an area, pressing the button prompt and then hitting the interact button again, or just following a spirit trail from A to B. It could have had some interesting gameplay integration but it largely just felt superficial to give Marianne a “power” the player can use.
Additionally, you have the option to separate into Marianne’s spirit form for a limited time to access areas not reachable by her physical form and to absorb light energy to discharge. While it has a cool animation, this is solely used to power fuse boxes, shield you from flying critters and buy you extra seconds in The Medium’s few “combat” or stealth encounters.
I See Dead People
Speaking of which, there are a handful of gameplay scenarios scattered throughout the duration which require you to sneak around or evade the primary antagonist monster, runaway from said monstrosity, or use the shield or burst powers to destroy rudimentary enemies. While the chase and sneaking sections hold some level of tension and act as some barriers to progress, they’re straightforward and easily progressed from with minimal effort. A couple of the running away sections were slightly clunky but they serve their purpose within the story. Which kind of sums up The Medium’s gameplay, it’s all there to service the narrative and none of it is intrinsically great within itself.
The Medium also makes some use of the PS5’s DualSense features. Voices sound even more mysterious when played through the controller’s microphone, triggers push against you when trying to run, rumble vibrations ratchet up the tension in chase scenes. It’s nothing incredible, but adds a little something extra to the immersion of the gameplay.
Outside of puzzles and the few encounters, the majority of your time will be spent exploring areas, interacting with items, collectibles and traversing the geometry of the resort. The wandering segments work similar to many other titles like Until Dawn or even the tank control setups of older games like Silent Hill. Not surprisingly, the exploration of the world and resort were my favourite part of The Medium, as I had the time and space to reflect on the world, events and what was occurring around me.
An Atmosphere, Achieved
It helps that The Medium’s environments look great for the most part. Rain effects are particularly good, with pools of water shimmering beautifully, the spiritual world amplified with deep browns, greens and reds and the resort coated in industrial, cold blues. Marianne generally is animated well, with some off lip-syncing at points. Other characters and areas are realised well, with some of the creative designs of the other worldly beings particularly grotesque and awe-inspiring all at once. The overall graphics are nothing spectacular, but given the relative budget the development team likely had, they’ve done well to create a title that looks quite as good as this.
The ambient soundtrack and use of eerie, threatening background music was also very well implemented. The music is dark and elicits a strong sense of anticipation. It suits the locales and situations perfectly, rarely getting in the way while also amplifying the tension of more pressuring parts of the game. I thoroughly enjoyed what Bloober Team managed with this and I felt it was well worth the shout out to the sound design team.
Despite all of its limitations with its gameplay though, I came out of The Medium feeling genuinely impacted by its narrative and story arc. It may not have been the most engaging game to actually play, but this was more than worth it to experience the deep, psychological and complex story it had to tell. There’s so much potential in ethereal stories to connect people to disturbing and introspective themes, and The Medium implements this in spades to create a narrative worth investing into. It takes its time getting rolling, but once this story gets its hooks into you, you’ll be hopefully just as horrifically engrossed as I was, unable to stop until you reach the resolution of the finale.
The Medium surprised me with its psychologically twisted, complex and intricate story that had me enthralled from the moment the intrigue turned into something more sinister and personable. Even with its simplistic gameplay design and clunky encounter mechanics, the atmosphere of the world and enjoyable tale should carry you through even its darkest corners. In the real world, The Medium would be basic, but in the spirit realm, it comes to life and will show you the disturbing but enchanting fabric of its reality.
The Medium is available now on PS5 (reviewed), Xbox Series S|X and PC
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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