A medium-rare order of horror
* Great graphics, voice acting, and sound design
Split-screen, parallel dimension gameplay is a neat twist for horror games
Strong initial setup and solid pacing throughout
* The ending. An absolute garbage conclusion that ruins the entire game.
Mechanics are simplistic or underdeveloped and take a backseat to the (disappointing) story. Puzzles are basic and stealth is lackluster.
Tries a bit too hard to be disturbing
The Bottom Line
The concept of split-screen gaming has been largely abandoned as developers shift to producing always online multiplayer titles. The idea of hanging out with your friends and battling it out on the latest FPS has been ditched with the assumption that everyone has the latest consoles. But what if split screen could be used for a single-player game? That’s the approach Bloober Team took when designing their newest horror adventure title, The Medium. A clear homage to the classic PlayStation-era third-person horror games such as Silent Hill, complete with songs composed by Akira Yamaoka to evoke the Konami classic, it opts for a more puzzle-based approach to disappointingly mixed results.
Set in 1999 Poland, the player takes on the role of Marianne, a woman dealing with all kinds of mental and spiritual problems as she possesses special abilities which allow her to perceive the spirit world alongside our own, thus enabling her to communicate with the dead and help them “cross over”. Over the years, Marianne has gradually accepted her abilities as her new normal, despite the disbelief of everyone else. One day after her father dies, Marianne gets a call from a man named Thomas who knows of Marianne’s abilities and begs her for help. The call leads her to an abandoned resort hotel called Niwa, which originally catered to communist officials and their families, and just so happens to be the site of an event where many people were killed at once. As Marianne investigates the resort’s dark secrets and her connection to its mysterious past, she comes face to face with a terrifying creature known as the Maw.
Marianne’s spiritual powers manifest by splitting the screen into two realities: the material world, and the spiritual world. This always occurs during specific, scripted moments during the story. You will often need to manipulate objects in the spiritual world to get past obstacles in the material world, and this puzzle solving forms the core of the experience. You’ll charge objects using “spirit energy”, use a shield to blast moth-like enemies, and reconstruct memories within the spirit world to progress the story. Marianne also has the ability to split her soul from her body for an “out of body” experience. Doing this gives her a limited amount of time to investigate areas which are blocked in the material world but unblocked in the spirit world. Later on, Marianne also gains the ability to cross over fully from one world to the other utilizing mirrors, which also enable a kind of teleportation between areas in the material world.
In the material world, Marianne will solve basic inventory puzzles to progress past locked doors or reach ledges. Often times, the player will need to use Marianne’s insight, a detective-vision-like feature, to follow trails and locate hidden objects and switches. Insight can also be used when inspecting objects to hear audio logs from the past. Some puzzles involve simulating physical interactions with the controller, such as pressing both triggers to break a lock with bolt cutters or holding down the stick to cut through walls of skin with a razorblade (don’t ask).
Eventually, Marianne will need to sneak past the Maw, which shows up at several key moments during the adventure. The creature is invisible in the material world, but the player can use Marianne’s insight to get a sense of where the Maw is located. All you’ll need to do is avoid the creature’s line of sight while staying crouched and holding your breath with the right stick and you’ll slip by pretty easily. It’s unfortunate that the stealth mechanics are so simplistic and underdeveloped, and these sections are disappointingly short and half-baked. I think having a more stealth focused game trying to avoid the Maw would have been more tense, but The Medium cops out and limits this to a very small handful of instances which are over far too quickly. The rest of the encounters with the Maw either involve setting up traps to stun him or being chased down long corridors. I think the developers could have done more with this creature.
Graphically, The Medium is a nice-looking game considering the small size of the development studio. Running on Unreal Engine 4, the environments are dripping with atmosphere and gritty details. The mundane world is rusted and falling apart, while the spirit world offers consistently hellish, nightmarish landscapes. There are later sections within the spirit world that offer some truly trippy and creative designs, making use of oversized objects as background props, and showcasing the darkest corners of the human mind. The cutscenes are very well animated, and I particularly like the way they are often split in two, showing Marianne interacting with the spirit world despite nothing being there in the material one. It helps us get inside her perspective while showing us why everyone else thinks she’s crazy. The transitions between the material and spirit world never stop being jarring for the entire duration of the game. The Medium largely opts for the fixed camera angles seen in the early Resident Evil games, which is a fairly unusual setup for a modern title, although there are sections where the camera will also follow along behind Marianne as she walks forward down a path or corridor. The only issue for a lot of players is the sheer demanding nature of the game.
This is the first “true” next-gen game I’ve played on PC, as even the PS4 and Xbox One reportedly could not handle this game due to the sheer grunt required to run two parallel universes side by side. I ended up running the game at 30 FPS, which was fine for the most part but even then there were a few moments, almost exclusively during cutscenes, which visibly chugged just a bit. It was hardly ever enough to ruin my experience, but it’s clear that The Medium is quite the beast when it comes to demanding modern games, and I would imagine some will use this as a benchmark title when testing out new PC builds.
The music is also intensely atmospheric. It’s mostly ambient noises and atmospheric effects, but there are a number of vocal pieces which pop up throughout the soundtrack. The voice acting is solid across the board and I never noticed any particularly bad performances even if things were overdone or campy at times.
The Medium is a game which puts all of its stock in its story, with the puzzles, stealth, and chase sequences serving as pacing between the moments which flesh out the mystery. Unfortunately, it’s also the area where The Medium really drops the ball. The opening hours are strong, setting up a heroine with cool abilities, a novel setting, and a seemingly compelling mystery. The game only gets darker and more disturbing as it goes along, and some will find some of the topics the story broaches to be uncomfortably taboo and even offensive. The game can honestly feel like it's trying too hard to shock at times, and I wouldn’t blame someone for not wanting to continue the game’s story given its implications. At first it seems like politics of Polish history will play a larger role in the story than they actually do. I’m not one for political games, but it feels like Bloober Team spent so much time in the early sections of the game referencing various ideologies but not actually doing much with them. You’re in a resort run by communists, but it’s so easy to forget that when the main story has very little to do with that apart from a few references.
But the real kicker is the game's conclusion. No game in recent memory has left me feeling more cheated after finishing it than The Medium. It’s honestly difficult to overstate exactly how disappointed I was with The Medium’s ending without going into some very heavy spoilers. Some might appreciate the ending’s ambiguity, but for me it was a total shrug of a conclusion, the kind of ending that makes you wish you never wasted your time installing the game in the first place.
There's a thrilling and intriguing story in here somewhere, but Bloober Team just bungled it in trying to be “artsy”. The gameplay, while functional, isn’t truly fun enough to make the journey worth taking. The end result is a pretty, but empty experience that wastes strong visuals and sound design, a great setup, and a concept that, while not as innovative as claimed, still offers a lot of potential for the horror genre. The Medium is, quite simply, undercooked. Take this one back to the kitchen, please.
by krisko6 (813) on February 18th, 2021