Publisher: Bloober Team / Developer: Bloober Team / Platform: PC, Xbox Series S/X / Release Date: January 28, 2021
We love to be scared and when it comes to video games, it feels like the experience is magnified tenfold. For me, I like the horror genre for a completely different reason. Horror games often attract my attention not because they scare me (unfortunately, I don’t scare easily) but because of the unexpected nature of the adventure. You never know how the experience is going to unfold. The more unexpected the gameplay, the better chance it has to live up to that fear-induced thrill.
The Medium is the latest horror game to pique my interest. At first, it was the general appeal of it being a “next-gen” game coming to the Xbox Series S/X and PC. However, in the lead-up to its release, the concept of its split world mechanics is what felt intriguing. It felt like it was bringing something new to the horror genre. While The Medium does bring some interesting ideas to the table, it’s a decidedly old-school game. The Medium mimics a lot of mechanics from early horror games (Resident Evil, Silent Hill, etc.) without reaching the same heights as those series’ most terrifying moments.
The Mystery Spot from the ’90s
There is a lot that is familiar about The Medium’s premise. Players are introduced to Marianne, who we find mourning the death of her foster father. Quickly, we learn what makes her special. Marianne is a medium with the ability to travel to the spirit world, commune with the dead, and help them pass on to the afterlife. After a mysterious call from a stranger, who knows about Marianne’s abilities, she finds herself traveling to the Niwa Workers’ Resort, the site of a massive massacre, to find answers.
A mysterious person with a mysterious past drawn to a mysteriously abandoned town. If any of that sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be alone. The plot echos a lot of Silent Hill. Not in the way that it has tons of unsettling imagery but in the way that its setting holds clues to the overall mystery. The story is threaded throughout this ‘90s Polish resort. As players explore, they learn more and more about what happened, what caused the massacre, and how it all ties back to Marianne and the truth about her past.
The overall mystery is the driving force for most of the game. There is a draw to satisfying the need to find out the truth and piece together the clues of what happened at the Niwa Resort. In fact, the game setting is probably the most interesting character in the game. The Medium makes great use of environmental storytelling, with plenty of notes and hidden audio to find, which really, really fill this abandoned setting with stories to tell. Marianne is … fine as a character. She’s good-natured and weary, which is expected of someone who has dealt with the dead all her life. However, there is nothing about her or any of the other characters in the game that stands out.
A Not So Scary Horror Story
Unfortunately, as much as The Medium wants to be a psychological horror, it misses the mark by a lot. The mystery is there but what’s missing is the tension and fear factor. The game plays up its otherworldly setting, with the spirit world making for some interesting visuals and creepy settings. However, there is nothing that exactly brings out the thrills and chills. What players will find is that The Medium heavily relies on the imagery of the spirit world to set the tone. The problem is that there is little sense of threat or urgency to the game and once players are used to the spirit world’s aesthetics, there is little to fear from the game. A lot of that has to do with how The Medium plays.
Remember the original Resident Evil trilogy? Those games were very smartly designed, with their fixed camera angles that changed as you enter every room, as well as the puzzles that challenge how the player navigates each setting. The Medium is built the exact same way. I’m actually surprised at how much The Medium mimics this style of gameplay that the Resident Evil games don’t even use it anymore, but it works. The game’s split mechanics play a big part in why it works so well. The split is a fun part of the game where the player navigates Marianne through the real world and spirit world at the same time. Think of it as a split-screen but you control both characters at the same time while they are in different places. What the player does in one world affects the other, making the puzzles a lot more interesting.
Where The Medium fails when taking this old school approach is in, once again, the sense of urgency. You see, in the original Resident Evil, the fixed camera served a purpose. It kept players off-balanced as they never knew what dangers lurked around the corner. That’s what made the puzzles so tense, various enemies, traps, and a sense of survival. The Medium doesn’t really have that. The spirit world has almost no enemies or dangers in your way. Sure, the game’s big bad chases you around, but it’s literally only once or twice within the whole game and these sections amount to sneaking or being chased for a few minutes. Instead, you’re basically moving Marianne from one puzzle to the next to progress the game, essentially going through the motions which can make for a boring experience.
Missing the Mark
I had high hopes for The Medium. Instead of being a horror experience that found an interesting use for its split-screen mechanic, I entered into a puzzle game with a slightly eerie atmosphere and a little challenge. It doesn’t help that The Medium is an extremely taxing game. My playtime with the game was spent on the PC, where I found the frame rate inconsistent, constantly dropping. I wish I could recommend The Medium to any horror fan or new Xbox Series S/X owners. Its story isn’t enticing enough, and the gameplay doesn’t do enough to live up to its old school inspirations, making for a sluggish experience that I wouldn’t blame players for not finishing to completion.