Polish developer Bloober Team has always been hit or miss for me, but there’s no denying how well they’ve perfected atmospheric horror over the years. From Layers of Fear and Observer to Blair Witch and their first foray into “next-gen” with the initially Xbox Series X exclusive The Medium, the one thing they’ve all had in common is their stellar world design. On the gameplay front, nothing really stood out until now.
The Medium is a straight up horror game with the gimmick of being able to navigate the real world and spirit world simultaneously with heroine Marianne. As the titular medium, she’s beckoned to the Niwa Resort by someone claiming to know her and having need of her special talents. This specific location happens to be the site of a gruesome massacre, which means it’s crawling with spirits needing help crossing over. Not all spirits drawn to Marianne are nice, though.
I want to get this out of the way early: this game features a pretty shitty portrayal of mental health and an incredibly shitty portrayal of sexual trauma and there’s no excuse for this kind of thing in 2021. Trauma as a plot device already kind of sucks and it’s been beaten to death, but The Medium mixes that in with pedophilia and nazis and man, I wish it just didn’t. Because it’s really, pretty good otherwise.
Marianne’s history being slowly pieced together was well done and had some heavy revelations that felt impactful, and there are some decent story beats for the supporting cast too, which makes the above paragraph even more tragic. It’s as if Bloober Team scooped up all the rotten low-hanging fruit and ran with everything all at once.
On the gameplay front, Marianne explores the abandoned resort while solving puzzles and discovering the identities of several spirits in order to send them along to the afterlife. The game makes good use of her ability to see both realms, shown simultaneously on-screen and often tasking you with switching between them to open new pathways, retrieve items, or absorb spirit energy to blast away objects within the environment. It’s neat.
There’s A LOT of time where you’re only controlling real-world Marianne, but I always found those scenarios interesting. I’m very much into just exploring creepy places, uncovering clues, and solving puzzles without the stress of combat and stalker monsters. That’s not to say the latter doesn’t exist.
Fairly early on Marianne finds herself being stalked by an otherworldly monster called The Maw, which leads to some rather elementary stealth sections in the spirit world. They’re all very brief and infrequent, so if you’re worried about hating these then don’t fret. They’re scripted too, which means you won’t be continuously stalked around the resort.
The Medium has some nice quality-of-life toggles in the options menu, like auto-completing mini-games that would otherwise force you to rotate items or spirit fragments in the correct manner, or slicing through flesh walls with a razor blade without having to trace their perforation. I also found it helpful switching crouch, run, and her “insight” ability to toggle instead of hold, for the sake of hand comfort.
Like every other Bloober Team game, The Medium has some exceptional atmosphere and world design. The resort itself can feel a bit samey after a while but there’s a decent variety of creepy locales to explore in and out of the spirit world once you’ve dug into it a bit more. The more impressive backdrops occur in the back half of the game, but if surrealist horror is your jam then you have something to look forward to. If I could sum them up in three words they’d be: gross, hellish, and mindfuck.
In general, The Medium is an above-average horror game with some neat mechanics that feel pretty good to play around with, but it also falls into some tired ass horror tropes (looking at you, boltcutters) that could have been worked around in a more interesting manner. I also wish Bloober Team leaned way more into the whole split-screen dual-world aspect instead of reserving them for scripted segments that rarely required any thought to progress through.
Even with that, I did have a mostly good time with The Medium until the ending. It’s basically a cataclysmic explosion of problematic portrayals of sexual assault and trauma and how little the writers at Bloober care about that sort of thing. I mean, there’s no tasteful way to address pedophilia and sexual trauma, but there’s certainly an absolutely abysmal way to do so and this is it.
For being exclusive to the current generation of console hardware (initially an Xbox Series S and X exclusive and now currently available on PS5) it didn’t look as good as I expected. This mostly comes in the form of character models, which often clashed with the gorgeous backdrops. My guess is the extra horsepower went into rendering both worlds simultaneously, which couldn’t have been easy.
With that in mind, it’s hard to recommend you play The Medium, but it does do some neat stuff mechanically and it’s an otherwise solid horror game that won’t take up much of your time. The soundtrack is also superb and as a fan of Akira Yamaoka I was stoked to hear new music from him, along with the wonderful vocals of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn and Troy Baker. It brought me back to Shadows of the Damned and I was in literal heaven.