As the first exclusive game available on Microsoft’s latest consoles, The Medium has been an enticing prospect. It also put a bit of pressure on Bloober Team, the developers of such horror/psychological games as Layers of Fear, Observer and Blair Witch. A lot of eyes were always going to fall on The Medium as people were eager to get a taste of the first exclusive, albeit an exclusive also available on PC due to Microsoft’s business model. So, is The Medium a worthy reason to rush out and buy an Xbox Series S or Series X? No. Not really. And not just because you can’t find any Xbox Series consoles, anyway.
The titular medium in this case is Marianne, an orphan who grew up with the power to see into the spirit world, leading to a difficult childhood as she tried to come to terms with her abilities. As she grows up she learns that as horrifying as her powers can sometimes be, she can also use them to help free trapped spirits that have been unable to properly move on. We pick up her story in the 90’s where she’s just buried her foster father, Jack. A mysterious phone call from someone named Thomas summons her to an abandoned resort called Niwa where a mysterious massacre was rumoured to have taken place. This would not normally be an offer worth entertaining owing to the likelihood of this being someone offering to sell you vacuum or, much more likely, a serial killer doing a piss-poor job of luring victims to their demise. For Marianne, though, there’s a certain enticement to travel to Niwa as Thomas not only knows who she is and what powers she has, but also promises to explain the recurring dream she has been having of a dead girl on a pier.
Of course, on arrival Thomas is nowhere to be found within the crumbling ruins of Niwa. Instead, Marianne finds the spirit of Sadness, a young girl who might remember who Thomas is and perhaps the truth behind the massacre at Niwa. But things are never easy, and a monster from the spirit world is stalking the halls, intent on on finding Marianne. Who is Thomas? Who is Sadness? And what is the horrifying monster known as The Maw?
As a fan of slow-burn, mysterious tales (Control is proof of my love of narratives that others can find annoying) and of psychological horror, The Medium’s premise was immediately intriguing to me, although it unravels at a pace that can, at times, feel glacially slow, both in its story and its gameplay. In what feels like a homage to the horror games of a bygone generation, the camera is controlled entirely by the game, giving you cinematic views of the crumbling halls of Niwa and the sickly spirit realm. This comes with the typical foibles of such a choice, namely it’s really easy to bump into the scenery or find yourself going the wrong way when the camera switches. And Marianne moves at such a slow speed, almost as though her bones are made of lead. It lends the game a very deliberate pace, but after a while Marianne’s plodding speed, even when being chased, begins to grate. Seriously, Marianne, you need to hit the gym or something.
The narrative that The Medium weaves is the most compelling reason to play the game, even if it never gets close to being a truly haunting psychological horror as it claims to be. It’s more of a thriller, slowly bringing together the threads of its story with the occasional bit of creepiness thrown in without any of the intense thrills, spills and chills. It’s a compelling mystery story that does jump into a couple of dark topics, some of which are handled well and others which aren’t, mostly because the writers completely avoid some of the tricky moral implications of their own plot. However, it’s also the kind of story that raises many questions and it can be difficult to tell of this questions aren’t answered due to poor writing or just because the writers want to keep the air of mystery by allowing the rules of this universe to be unknown and unknowable. We are, after all, dealing with spirits and weird monsters and other madness. In other words, it deals in vagueness and thus if you like to have answers to your questions or get frustrated by plot holes The Medium might just end up making you want to send it to the spirit realm.
That vagueness plagues the ending, too, which leaves you hanging with an intentionally open-ended finale that provides almost nothing in the way of satisfying narrative closure, while also setting up for either DLC or a sequel. Look, I have no problem with leaving certain plot strings dangling in the wind so that they can be gathered up in the sequel, but you still need to to deliver a good ending to the first story before you go assuming I’ll be coming back to see what happens next, and on that count The Medium fails.
To sum up, the story is solid but never reaches its full potential. I kept playing so that I could finally discover what the full tale was, but by the end I wasn’t sure it had been worth the journey. The performances throughout can be hit and miss, too. Without a doubt, Sadness is the best of the bunch, her voice actor (Angeli Wall) manages to neatly balance mischievous child and being scared. Troy Baker is pretty decent as The Maw too, even though it’s far from one of his most memorable roles. It’s Kelly Burke as Marianne that is the tricky one because I think she’s more than capable of delivering a stellar performance – and occasionally does – but she was let down by poor direction. The best example I can think of is how Marianne sounds so very excited when she finds some bolt cutters, but sounds mildly inconvenienced when she mutters, “Oh God, no.” while being chased by a giant bloody demon creature that wants to wear her skin. A lot of the time she sounds mildly amused, but it isn’t the kind of nervous humour of someone trying to keep themselves from peeing their pants and hiding in the nearest cupboard. She just seems to emphasis the right things, making the whole performance feel off, and I think that’s down to poor direction rather than the skills of Kelly Burke.
The big gimmick behind The Medium is how occasionally Marianne will put a foot into both realms, straddling the line between our reality and that of the Spirit world. When this happens the screen splits in two, one part showing the decrepit resort and the other showing the spirit world which is covered in weird fungus and looks like someone spilled a bucket of brown paint all over it. You control Marianne in both worlds at the same time, but an obstacle in one world can stop you from progressing in the other, thus a simple door in our realm will stop you in your tracks even if the spirit realm looks clear. Marianna has a skill for that, though; holding down B lets her perform a spirit walk, controlling her spirit form only. This can let you get into areas inaccessible otherwise and figure out what the problem might be, although Marianne can only stay like this for a short time before needing to zip back to her body.
The concept of splitting the screen and traversing two worlds at once is a cool one, and Bloober Team is careful not to overuse the gimmick across the 8-10 hours or so it takes to complete The Medium. However, it’s also a concept that never feels properly used to do anything interesting. You still run around and solve the very basic, restrictive puzzles that you normally solve, except now occasionally there’s a door in the way in one world or the other, or you need to slice through some skin with a knife. I hesitate to refer to what Bloober do as actual puzzles since they don’t require any thought from the player. Mostly you’ll walk around and interact with the very few objects scattered around the environment, often only running into one or two objects in a sizable room. Occasionally you’ll pick something up and then might have to put it somewhere else, the location of which is always very obvious. The closest The Medium comes to offering a proper puzzle is at the very end, which actually ends up being the worst time for it because it takes away what little urgency there was.
By their very nature horror games require a near constant sense of dread. For me, though, The Medium struggles to keep the tension and atmosphere because it’s very, very clear when things can actually happen. You’re safe for the majority of The Medium, there’s no threat. It’s a problem Bloober have had with their previous work, which is to say that the illusion of horror they work to create with the detailed environments and superb audio is so easily shattered when you realise that there is no actual danger. The only time you’re at risk in The Medium is during prescribed, horrendous stealth sections and chase sequences, and it’s obvious when those are coming. The rest of the time, I was running around without a worry in the world, any sense of tension from the first hour having vanished. It’s like exploring a haunted house after you’ve found the strings and pulleys controlling the flying ghost. This detracts from the detailed world, too, because you aren’t exploring a creepy environment filled with danger and blood-curdling possibilities anymore, you’re just ambling along a lot of long corridors at a very slow speed.
This isn’t to say that the game needs combat or something along those lines to keep the tension up, but considering you spend a lot of time technically being hunted by a beast called The Maw there’s not much of a genuine threat looming behind your back. When it appears you usually go through a tedious, awkward stealth section or maybe run away. It’s about as threatening as a minorly miffed bunny rabbit, assuming it isn’t the rabbit from Month Python’s The Holy Grail. Jesus Christ. Nor does the story ever get dark enough or disturbing enough to burrow under your skin and cause you to re-evaluate your opinion on whether there might actually be a monster under your bed.
The slow pace and simple puzzles do mean that there’s a very deliberate pace to The Medium, driving the focus toward taking your time and soaking up the atmosphere. If you can suspend your disbelief in a way I couldn’t, some of which might be due to me playing so many games and being familiar with how they work, and if you appreciate the detailed worlds then you’ll probably enjoy The Medium much more than I ever did or ever could. Even then, though, the simple truth is that I found The Medium boring to play. And do keep in mind that I have no issue with the so-called walking simulator genre, but those tend to be shorter and so keep a steady stream of captivating story beats and visually impressive moments. The Medium’s longer runtime of 8-10 hours stretches everything out in a way Bloober Team don’t seem able to handle properly, leaving long stretches where it feels like you’re just pushing forward on the analogue stick for ages.
The cool usage of split-screen gaming does come with a heavy performance cost, though, because the console is having to render two scenes using different assets. It’s sort of like having to run two games at the same time. Because of this the resolution takes a massive hit, especially on the Series S that I was playing it on. The boffins over at Digital Foundry noted the resolution dropping to 648p on the Series S. Given the fact that two separate screens are being displayed at the same time the drop in visuals is understandable. This big loss in visual clarity is at least combated a touch by the fact that each image is smaller, making the loss in detail less pronounced than it normally might be. Still, if you stop playing for a second and look closely you’ll definitely that Marianne’s face now looks like its made of Playdough that’s been moulded by a five-year-old, that the whole image looks incredibly soft and that edges look more like the edges of a saw blade.
Outside of this technical limitation, The Medium looks great, for the most part. The environments are packed with detail and practically ooze creepy atmosphere out of every crack in the wall, and when you venture into the Spirit World the mix of browns and reds make for an oppressive, horrible world. I particularly love the designs for the characters, especially that of Sadness. The spirits have bodies that look like they’ve been pulled apart and are now held together by stretched…stuff, that’s probably best not to speculate about.
However, the gloomy real world and the reds and browns of the Spirit World do mean everything tends to blur together. Both worlds are so bleak and are predominantly made up of corridors and rooms that you slowly trudge around, that they sort of merge together into one colourless mass. I think the lack of contrast between the worlds in terms of colour is what makes me feel like this because even in the regular world it looks like someone has come along and painstakingly sucked the colour out of everything, leaving even the grass looking like it has been fighting off Covid-19 for a few weeks. Just a tad more colour could have helped to set the two worlds apart, especially when they’re sharing the screen.
Ultimately, though, the massive performance burden of the split-screen trick never feels worth it. You lose heaps of resolution and in return get nothing except for going slightly cross-eyed as you view both worlds simultaneously. The way puzzles are constructed barely changes and the only semi-cool things Marianne can do in the spirit world is charge up a blast of energy (used solely to power up electronics) and summon a shield which lets you navigate through swarms of moths that occasionally block your path. The closest The Medium comes to doing anything truly interesting are a couple of segments where you have to unite a lost soul with their mask and then discover their names so that Marianne can help them move on. This is tied to a theme that gets established in the game’s intro when Marianne makes a comment about how some people would love the chance to share final words with loved ones, a theme that initially seems like it is going to be an important part of The Medium but that actually gets forgotten about quite quickly.
For me, The Medium largely fails at what it was trying to be. It isn’t scary enough to be a straight horror game, nor does it burrow into your into psyche and send those chills up your spine like a good psychological horror should. As a thriller it does better, but even then there’s no sense of tension or the feeling of never knowing what’s waiting for you around the next corner. The gameplay is more of a dull, slow trudge through lengthy areas that have one or two intractable objects and the most basic of puzzles that require almost zero use of your brain, which also renders the inventory system practically useless. That leaves us with the story, easily the best part of The Medium and yet still not anything special. It has a few engrossing moments and twists within the tale, but the characters are rather flat and difficult to connect with, and the ending left me feeling more irritated than satisfied.
As the first Xbox Series S/X exclusive, The Medium isn’t the best example of what Microsoft’s newest generation of hardware is capable of producing. It’s strongest asset lies in the fact that its on Games Pass and thus if you have that service it’s worth playing, otherwise save your money for now. But there is potential in The Medium, and I hope it gets the sequel that the story seems to be setting up.