The Medium is the first real exclusive for the Xbox Series X|S from Bloober Team, the creators of Layers of Fear and Blair Witch. This ambitious horror title tells the story of Marianne, a medium tasked to solve a mystery regarding her past at a dilapidated resort where spirits haunt its ominous remains.
What drew me to this game during the Xbox Showcase last year was its dual-world feature where the player could see both the corporeal and the spirit world simultaneously. While this feature really could drive curious gamers to pick up the game, would it sustain itself as a mainstay or is it merely a gimmick that fades once its novelty has run its course?
The game starts off somber and slow, a death in the family halted protagonist Marianne’s somewhat tumultuous life. A curious call sends her to the much maligned Niwa (pronounced Nee-va) resort, a forgotten area plagued by urban legends and has been avoided by the general public.
To call The Medium a horror game is selling it short, and the best way to define the game is that it is a paranormal mystery with horror elements. The title feels like a Resident Evil walking simulator without the survival horror elements. For the most part, the game tries really hard to be scary but falls flat in that aspect as it utilizes cheap jump scares along with excessively activating the rumble function on the controller for no particular reason.
The game score plays anxious horror music while throwing jump scares into scenes that cheapens the moment and actually downplays the story that’s being told. The ambient noise and ghostly whispers feel overdone for the most part and tends to get annoying when it bleeds into the investigation aspect of the game.
The orchestrated music doesn’t really add to the game as at times there is a mismatch to the score being played and the general mood of the scene. While I’ve tuned most of the music out for the most part, there are times where some well orchestrated music creeps up on you and you feel its impact. It would’ve been great if it was consistent.
What exacerbates the cheap horror gimmicks is the awkward control design. The insight function causes your controller to rumble uncontrollably. As a scanning function, you’ll be using it quite frequently, making the rumble feature annoying. Putting the running ability as a left trigger when the insight button is located on the left bumper crowds the left triggers while the right triggers are under-utilized. It may be a minor quirk for some, but we love our intuitive control schemes and this isn’t one of them.
While we could map the buttons as wish, it is just as awkward to put your spirit powers on the left trigger area when we’re conditioned to perform actions on the right side. Yet throughout the game we seldom use these action commands so it still feels under utilized given that almost 40% of the game is spent on investigative moments and another 40% is with cut scenes.
One other thing that also threw me off are the fixed camera angles. There is no way to really look around with the R-stick as we’ve been conditioned from the games currently out. It feels like an old-school Resident Evil or Silent Hill trope that’s a minor annoyance, but as a “next gen” experience, this isn’t it. I know that it was designed to be this way, so this is a personal nitpick.
I also strongly advise to tweak the brightness two steps up from the default as the default’s brightness is much too dark.
It was a bumpy start to a game I’m obviously wanting to love as the little annoyances of its lack of polish as well some immersion breaking bugs like clipping and framerate dips are much too common to let slide. Five hours into the game, there are instances of game breaking bugs that prevent progress at certain points that could be fixed by reloading an autosave in a previous checkpoint. I was glad that cutscenes are skippable because there was a fair amount I had to get to to get back to my current progress.
Marianne In Spiritland
Let’s get the dual-world feature out of the way, and as the main selling point of the game, it was well implemented and definitely the best feature of the game. While it is jarring at first trying to figure out which screen to focus on, you mostly interact in the material world while curiously peering what’s behind the veil in the spirit world.
The spirit world screen is a visual representation on what Marianne feels and sees as she is attuned to the “other side”. Framerate dips are somewhat common and while it isn’t too distracting for me, it may be bothersome for those who have been enjoying silky-smooth gameplay from the next-gen consoles.
Speaking of silky smooth, you’ll be somewhat disappointed that the game doesn’t run at 60fps, and this was a design decision by Bloober Team just because a somewhat slow paced game such as this will not necessarily benefit too much from it. The right call, we would say.
The dual-world adds an element of puzzle and clue solving to the game as you attempt to explore the haunted hotel and find ways to traverse to the next goal. Just like Resident Evil and Silent Hill but their more walking simulator counterparts, you collect files and artifacts that give you a sense of Niwa and what befell its denizens. These “collectibles” are actually connected to the story, and adds to the air of mystery that surrounds the place and it motivates me to find answers to those mysteries.
You can dip into the spirit world by going out-of-the-body to explore areas your physical body cannot traverse into. There, your astral form can collect spirit energy to power electric switches and dispel hostile spirits with your spirit shield. Take care not to spend too much time in the spirit world as it’ll literally suck you there. You can collect astral tools to cut through barriers and also collect keys and tools in the material world to open physical doors.
When you encounter more sinister spirits in the material world, the stealth aspect of the game is triggered where you can hold your breath and crouch to prevent from being caught. It’s akin to Alien: Isolation or Outlast but unlike those games, the stakes are relatively low and getting caught isn’t as terrifying. Maybe if it was a first person point of view, it would be a different story.
Later in the story, it becomes possible to traverse into the spirit world as a whole without the dual screen. It adds to the already dynamic feeling where the areas merge in dual screen but this time, you have full control over the astral world. Worlds are connected by mirrors and those with ray tracing can probably see how crisp the reflection animation could get.
Solving The Mystery
My favorite part of the game really is revealing what’s behind the curtain. As I enter newer areas of the hotel, solving pieces of the puzzle only lead to branching story lines where more mysteries are revealed and it motivates me to solve them more. The voice acting talents of Kelly Burke, Graham Vick, and of course Troy Baker’s over-the-top performance bring the game to life.
While the first two hours of the game take time getting used to, I feel the momentum of the game, if given the chance, will grow on you. After a while, I was able to forgive the questionable design choices and just enjoy the experience. Because once you reach the main hotel area, momentum picks up and the mystery of the setting really ramps up.
Adding the dynamic of echoes and memory fragments, the backstory could be explored and experienced real time elevating the world’s lore– gradually bringing the entire haunted resort to life. The game designers have created an immersive bubble where you actually feel trapped in this haunted setting and every interaction adds to that experience. While this may not appeal to the more action oriented player, a more story-driven player will definitely connect with this game. What The Medium lacks in action, makes up for its atmosphere, and it is great.
Overall, the narrative was engaging enough to motivate you to move on. While I was more engaged with the mystery and of course Marianne’s story, there were other parts of the story that didn’t seem to fit and it introduced some friction to the game. While they added more nuance and context through their cryptic clues, they weren’t that interesting and I preferred to return to Marianne’s narrative.
I actually enjoyed the ending to the game as while it may seem like an overdone trope in many independent psychological thrillers, it’s refreshing to have that type of ending in a video game setting that goes against the grain of the done-to-death “player choice” endings that feel like filler before returning to the open world (and we get a “canon” ending upon playing the sequel anyway).
On the flip side, having this kind of linear game limits the replay value of the game as we would only return to retrieve the collectables that we missed, and having multiple endings would’ve garnered another play through as the total playtime only lasts 7-8 hours. While I don’t have a concrete preference, the writer in me leans towards the former while the broke gamer in me would prefer better replay value to get the most out of my purchase.
What We Liked:
- Dual screen adds a fun puzzler element while also allows for dynamic exploration.
- The mystery surrounding the game is well told as clues are gradually revealed.
- The lore of the game told through artifacts and its backstory bring the world to life.
What We Didn’t Like:
- Insight and run buttons mapped on the left trigger area is a strange design choice.
- Fixed camera feels dated for a “next-gen” experience.
- Horror elements are reduced to cheap jump scares and ineffective ambient noises.
- Short linear game with little replay value isn’t worth the full price.
Verdict: Wait For It.
I’m thankful for the Xbox Game Pass mitigating the price risk to be able to try The Medium out at minimal cost. I honestly enjoyed the experience, especially later in the game when momentum picks up with the paranormal investigation inside the Niwa resort. However, coupled with the fact that it’s too short of a game and that it needs another patch or two to alleviate some of its game breaking and immersion breaking bugs mixed in with questionable game design, I can’t in good conscience recommend this game at full price for now. If you don’t have the Game Pass, The Medium is a tough sell at $50. On the other hand, it fits as a must buy at around the $20-$30 range.
I feel that the the title could’ve used more polish, as there were some questionable design choices that are deal-breakers for more particular gamers, especially for a title that lacks action. The game has focused its marketing and classification towards its weaker horror elements when it’s really the mystery and puzzle solving that are its clear strengths. If you’re looking for a good horror game, you’re better off with something like Little Nightmares or Resident Evil 7.
I commend Bloober Team’s ambition in attempting to create a title of this scope. I like the ideas implemented and borrowed from established horror titles and I feel they’re in the right direction as a developer. Hopefully they improve on their potential as seen from this game and we see more polished and creative titles from them in the future.