With an exceptional soundtrack, decent story and superb art style, The Medium succeeds in creating an eerie atmosphere, but it's far from a flawless experience due to its oversimplified puzzles, underwhelming voice acting and pacing issues.
The Medium is the fifth horror game from the Polish developer Bloober Team, who previously brought us Layers of Fear, Observer and Blair Witch. With each release, Bloober Team has pushed the bar higher and higher, and their latest horror experience is no exception. The Medium is Bloober Team's best horror game to date but for every praiseworthy feature, The Medium has at least one that could and probably should have been done better.
One of the strongest points of The Medium is its story. The game puts players in the boots of Marianne, a young woman with a supernatural gift, which allows her to enter the spirit world. This dark reflection of our own reality is a devilish universe, brimming with inhuman creatures that haunt souls with special psychic abilities.
Marianne is haunted by a vision of a child's murder on a pier. She can't really tell if this is just a nightmare or something she already experienced but is keen to find some answers and finally figure out what is happening to her.
The story kicks off during one of the hardest moments in Marianne's life. As she is saying goodbye to her late adopter, Marianne gets a mysterious phone call from a strange man named Thomas, who claims to know about her and the "talent" she possesses. The stranger invites Marianne to meet him at the Niwa Hotel, where he promises to reveal all the answers she is seeking.
As Marianne arrives at the hotel, she realises the man is nowhere to be seen or found and that something horrible has happened to the residents of this once gorgeous and relaxing resort.
The Medium's story may be a bit predictable at times, and some would say that the plot is just another horror cliché but it really is much more than that. It's well-written and just when you think that it's starting to lose steam, it introduces a whole new scenario, with interesting twists and characters.
You can complete The Medium in about eight hours, which is a respectable length, especially for a game priced at $50. In those eight hours, you will visit chilling locations and solve ominous stories, trying to find out what actually happened to the guests and staff of Niwa Hotel, and of course - find some answers about your own nightmares.
These smaller stories, which are told through postcards, documents, posters and personal objects that belonged to the unfortunate victims, serve as a great tool for world-building and storytelling, making the already eerie atmosphere even more haunting.
And while I loved the story and how it's presented to the player, in one certain part of the game, a bit closer to the end, it feels dragged out and unnecessarily slows down to the point where I got so bored that I just wanted to go through this segment of the game as quickly as I could. I simply did not like how long it took for a game to reveal some important pieces of the story. It's a small, bothersome thing, in an otherwise well-written narrative.
There's no combat in The Medium. This hurts the game sometimes, particularly in the sections of the game where you have to solve puzzles, which can feel like a chore since there's no real challenge that follows the player during these moments. The atmosphere also suffers in these sections and I feel the game would really benefit from some sort of menace that would be there simply to make you uncomfortable as you try to find the gas for the generator or find the replacement fuse to light up dark corridors.
Sometimes, there is a threat in the form of an otherworldly being named the Maw, voiced by Troy Baker. However, the Maw is quite easy to fool and never presents a serious threat to the player. You can avoid it by simply hiding behind an object or holding your breath as you slowly walk right by it to your next objective.
Since The Medium is a story-driven psychological horror without combat sequences, the least I expected was plenty of head-scratching puzzles, especially with the Dual Reality system, which opens plenty of possibilities for some intriguing tasks. However, The Medium's puzzles are pretty straightforward and 99 per cent of the time, the game just holds your hand and walks you through these areas.
The game's main protagonist, Marianne, also loves to comment on things from time to time, giving you hints to already obvious puzzles, which can be a bit annoying - "Well, duh, Marianne" was my regular comment most of the time.
Now for the star of The Medium - the aforementioned Dual Reality system. I have to say that it's a rather impressive achievement both artistically and technically. The engine basically renders two worlds at the same time and it works flawlessly. In one particular instance, the game switches between the worlds several times in less than a minute without a single hiccup, and this is one of the most memorable moments in the entire game. I just wished the game offered more of these but nonetheless, the Dual Reality is something that Bloober Team can be proud of.
Graphics and Sounds
The segment where The Medium absolutely shines is the sound, more precisely, the soundtrack, co-composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski (Layers of Fear) and the legendary composer Akira Yamaoka, best known for his work on the iconic Silent Hill series.
The Medium's soundtrack is perhaps one of my favourite features of the game. It has this old-school horror vibe with simple, subtle but absolutely chilling piano notes. Walking around the Niwa Hotel with raindrops echoing outside, while Yamaoka's and Reikowski's soundtrack plays in the background, brings the atmosphere to a whole new level. The soundtrack will certainly give you serious Silent Hill vibes and will bring back memories of some older horror classics that we used to love.
And while the soundtrack deserves all the praise it can get, the same cannot be said for the mediocre voice acting. Troy Baker, who voiced The Maw, did a solid job but voice acting for some other characters is way too soft and it doesn't quite reflect what's happening on the screen. This part of the game should have been better but it's a flaw that's understandable to some degree since the game had a fairly limited budget.
As for the visual part of The Medium, this is another strong selling point of the game. The art style is exceptional but this is true only for the spiritual world, which is inspired by the work of the Polish surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński. The real world has some okayish locations but these do not come close to those that are found in the spiritual world.
Some of the locations you'll visit while experiencing the spiritual world and trying the uncover the mysteries of lives of The Medium's characters are stunningly frightening, disturbing and sometimes downright disgusting. The game also stylishly uses the Dual Reality system to show you the two versions of the same location, which results in some memorable moments, especially later in the game.
You'll also get to enter the memories of certain story characters, try to figure out what caused their suffering and what made them into a person they are today. These memories have unique level designs that reflect the characters' lives and the recollection of events that lead to their actions in the story. It works great in The Medium, and the people behind the level design and the art style of these levels did a terrific job.
I would love to wrap up the graphics section of this review with the glaring words above but unfortunately, the quality of animations is so average that it cannot go unmentioned. The movement feels stiff, especially the running animation which makes the character look like someone just woke them up from the mellowest of dreams and made them run for no reason. It's like they hate it so much so they try to make it look as bad and pathetic as possible. Facial animations, especially the lip-syncing, is almost non-existent too. It looks like this was another part of the game that was severely limited by the budget.
The Medium is Bloober Team's best horror game yet with an interesting story, a memorable main protagonist, an exceptional soundtrack and a stunning visual style. Yes, it has a lot of flaws, but tell me what games don't? It's all about making those flaws inconsequential and, in my honest opinion, Bloober Team just barely did that with The Medium.
If you're a fan of the iconic Silent Hill series or simply love psychological horror films and games with a strong story - The Medium is definitely a game you should not skip out on, especially since it's available on Xbox Game Pass, which you can get for just $1.
A massive thank you to Premier Comms for providing us with a PC copy of the game for this review. The Medium is officially releasing on January 28, 2021, for Xbox Series X|S and PC.