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The Medium is ambitious, flawed, and a unique experience
Psychological horror is back thanks to Bloober Team’s The Medium. To say it is an ambitious game is an understatement, considering first appearances may fool some into thinking this is a AAA title. It might as well be. There is a compelling story that unfolds throughout this tale, and its pacing reminds me of a few of my favorite horror films – The Conjuring, Insidious, and Paranormal Activity. It’s always a gamble to hold back and build-up to the main attractions of the game. The Medium is a game that manages to pick up the pace the moment it needs to.
If you are a fan of old-school survival horror, The Medium is your game. Often, I found myself haunted by my surroundings, and the creatures in the game provide nightmare fuel. It’s not just scary. This game is a psychological treat with often frustrating but stimulating puzzle designs – Often, but not every puzzle will thrill.
Marianne’s Journey through split worlds
We follow Marianne, a young and powerful medium who recently lost her Father. After receiving a strange call, she makes her way to the Niwa Hotel and must unravel the mystery of a bizarre massacre that took place years ago. She can focus on objects using her insight ability, revealing information about the owners. In these moments, we hear dialogue from the past, but it rarely makes sense because that’s our objective – to force this dark world to make sense. The idea that objects and places hold memories evokes my memory of The Shining.
The central mechanic that showcases her power is the parallel spirit world that Marianne inhabits. Unlike most games, we’re not just cruising from one world to the next. Her spiritual power is such that she can occupy the real world and the spirit world simultaneously. The Series X has its work cut out for it, rendering both worlds while supplying different items to interact with. We, the players, see the worlds presented as a split-screen. What she does in one world, she does in the other.
I must say, the spirit world looks like a decaying hellscape, and that visual carries over to its inhabitants. Spirits you meet look human, though they cover their faces in crack porcelain masks. Take Sadness, for instance. She seems to convey a particular joy you would not expect from the dead, given she is a child. The mask obscures her face, and her body is torn and tattered, giving me the impression that she suffered quite the violent death.
Mirrors shed new light on the world
Marianne will walk both worlds for a third of the game. When she isn’t, she can use mirrors to cross over to the spirit world and back. I loved many of these sequences, no matter how small they seemed. I wish more puzzles had utilized the mirror concept – One does pretty late in the game, and they did it so well! I think it was a missed opportunity.
Puzzles Galore await in The Medium
Love them or hate them, puzzles make up most of the activity players will indulge in. Like any adventure game, Marianne and the players should prepare themselves for some puzzling! Of course, we know that not all puzzles are equal. Some puzzles lack inspiration, but some stand out because of the dual worlds we inhabit.
For the most part, Marianne solves puzzles by interacting with objects in both worlds. If there’s a missing object in the real world, she often finds something related to it in the spirit world. She does have the power to force herself into an out-of-body experience, allowing her to traverse places in the spirit world she can’t reach otherwise. At these intervals, we control her in one world, but her spirit begins to fade the longer we take to return to her body.
If I’m honest, the puzzles are mostly traversal oriented. The game is a linear experience, and you’re trying to move forward. Players will get real familiar with sources of “Light” that Marianne must absorb to power up generators, protect yourself from moths, and a hulking creature called the Maw.
The Themes of The Medium
At the heart of Marianne’s tale is a lot of grief and tragedy for all involved. Thematically, we encounter elderly abuse, domestic abuse, child abuse, child murder, implied pedophilia, and a host of others. The problem is that the narrative mostly skirts over each, glossing over them with memories and a noticeably clear message to deliver. When these topics matter to the game, they are explored, but never with enough depth to leave a significant impact on me one way or the other. At the very least, Bloober Team is respectful of the dreariness. They don’t use these themes for shock value.
With these themes and the supernatural surrounding her, the dialogue had a chance to become campy. Luckily, Marianne’s narration and the moments she talks to herself helps ground the game. She is used to spirits and has lived with one foot in both worlds for a long time. She’s tough as nails and has a no-nonsense attitude, and Kelly Burke excels as a voice actor here. Her voice-work and Marianne’s wry humor helps avoid that feeling of ridiculousness players can get if everything is far too serious.
How well does it do fear?
The horror does ramp up in the second half of the game, but the scares feel few and far between. The Maw offers a reason to be afraid as it chases us, taunting us with the prospect of wearing our skin. When it manages to cross over into the physical realm and hunt us down while invisible, I’d tightly grip my controller in a mild panic. However, escaping the creature isn’t all that difficult. I did die a few times figuring out where to run, but the Maw seems more an obstacle than a real threat.
Rather than being obscenely scary, I think the horror aspects lie in how they present the spirit world to us. There’s a creepy, gothic feel to the setting, but Marianne does not express terror toward much of the world. Instead, she appeared mostly in control over her situations. When she wasn’t, she approached things with such a level head, compassion, and emotion. To successfully immerse us in a way that keeps us scared, Marianne should have been prone to trepidation. I ended up feeling as confident as she was, mostly.
There’s also a case to make for the scary factor being what living people can do to one another.
What it doesn’t do well
Chalk it up to user error, but there were many times I wandered aimlessly, uncertain of what I was looking for. Anytime this occurred, I began to parrot the idea that the game is a walking simulator. It is, in fact, but that fits games like Alan Wake, Silent Hill, and especially suits The Medium. Unfortunately, something else contributed to me feeling lost at times, and it’s the very mechanic that impressed me: The dual worlds.
When solving puzzles or generally moving from room-to-room, the dual view became troubling. I’d either be frantically looking up to down or left to right, never sure where I was supposed to be looking. I am a creature of habit, so I’m used to focusing on one screen where all the action occurs. There was more than one occasion where I focused entirely on one screen, forgetting how integral the other was. Most of my aimless wandering was solved when I paid attention to the different world.
I attribute the difficulty I had focusing on the fresh idea. No, split-screen isn’t a novel idea; We learned how to look between split screens in small bursts during couch co-op sessions. When it comes to a narrative game presenting two worlds through split-screen, I had to rewire my brain to look at both for more than a few seconds.
Side note: There’s a glitch I’d like to mention. Randomly, colored orbs of light flickered in the game. It didn’t happen too much, but it looked like disco lights were pelting the screen. I’m not sure if or when they will fix it.
Escaping the Maw is rarely difficult
Another issue I had with the game is the Maw. Troy Baker brilliantly voices the Maw with iconic lines I won’t soon forget. He does utter one quite a bit, but it’s so ominous that it doesn’t allow me. That aside, the A.I. does not serve this creature well.
The Maw is blind by all accounts, so gamers know making a sound is the real danger. The Medium offers a stealth outing by allowing Marianne to hide behind cover and hold her breath. Anytime a character must hold their breath in a game, I immediately overestimate the A.I. and its ability to sense me. Like most games, even making a sound is an easy mistake to recover from.
At one point, the Maw is actively searching for you for a decent amount of time. As I made my way through the spirit world, I noticed just how easy it was to bob and weave out of the Maw’s earshot. If it does capture you and Marianne has a full charge of spirit energy, she can blast herself out of its clutches. It is always initially terrifying, but I began to fear the Maw catching me for a different reason.
For the love of gamers everywhere, let us save!
The Medium autosaves at random intervals, but it does not do it often enough. If that’s not bad enough, let me state right now that you cannot manually save. Checkpoints aren’t as plentiful as they need to be. This didn’t hurt much until I reached certain sections with the Maw. At that point, the game’s stakes became “Avoid the Maw because I have no idea where the last checkpoint is.”
The Medium has staying power
It took me about seven to eight hours to finish the game, which may seem relatively short, but I think the length was perfect for this tale.
This game had the makings of a AAA title wrapped up in an indie package. I hoped for more surrealism due to the dual world premise, though. It feels like Bloober Team were tame in their execution, from the mechanics right down to the tension. I don’t think this is the horror story of 2020 or this year, but it is the most ambitious. Don’t get me wrong – The Medium is delightful, and I implore everyone to give it a playthrough.
If there is a sequel, fan expectations will be high. I’m not clawing at their feet for something ‘better.’ After playing the game, it’s so clear that they have the talent to improve upon every aspect they included in The Medium. So, hopefully, this is part one of an ongoing tale. If so, perhaps the first game’s pacing is deliberate, and our next outing is spine-chilling and a real game-changer.