The Medium Review
Hell, oh, from the other side
The quality of games from Bloober Team has gone back and forth over the years. Their first breakout horror title, Layers of Fear, contained little more than a bunch of decent jump scares. Then they lifted output quality dramatically, by creating an amazing sci-fi world in their best game, Observer. Unfortunately things then fell apart with their adaption of Blair Witch, and not just because of its technical issues. Their newest game, The Medium, seems like the perfect fit for the studio: a third-person psychological horror game about a woman who can see the spirit world and help lost souls. Yet despite some interesting concepts and an intriguing story, the game flounders with a clumsy camera, insufficient horror, underwhelming design, and inconsistent performance.
Marianne's abilities let her see the other side
Marianne is a young woman with the supernatural ability to see the spirit world—often not at the time of her choosing. Within the spirit world, she can talk to the dead and help them move on by calling their name after convincing them it is time. Her abilities also extend to ‘reading’ items imbued with emotion, which lets her see the past.
When Marianne’s father dies, she prepares his body for a funeral. Here we see a brilliant first glimpse of her skills as she’s thrown into the spirit world. Her father is unaware of his demise and Marianne eventually convinces him it is time to rest and he vanishes. Immediately afterwards, the phone rings in the real world and a man on the other end knows all about her abilities. This unknown male compels Marianne to come to the Niwa Resort with the promise of answers to a nightmare she’s been having.
The Niwa Resort opened after WWII as a family vacation spot run by the government, but it has been abandoned for years. Rumors existed about a massacre, but nothing was ever confirmed. While the hotel/resort is now empty, Marianne discovers that souls have been trapped inside for years. She’ll need to free them to fully explore the resort. She must find their names by rummaging through both the real and spirit world. This includes reading letters, picking up mementos, putting items in their rightful place, and syncing memories. She also needs practical items, like bolt cutters to open chained gates and a razor blade in the spirit world to slice through walls made of flesh.
Sadness will help you navigate Niwa
Fortunately one soul can help her navigate Niwa. A little girl named Sadness once lived in the resort, but she has forgotten most of her life. Now she wants a friend and refuses to cross over. This young girl can freely roam about the spirit world and interact with items in the real world to help guide Marianne. As you control Marianne and explore, Sadness remembers that there is a horrible creature in the resort waiting for more victims.
The Maw is a twisted winged creature that roams in search of vessels it can use as a skin suit. Marianne is fresh meat and her supernatural connection makes her even tastier. So when Marianne is not freeing spirits, she’s avoiding the Maw in one of two ways: scripted chases, or simply hiding from it by crouching behind obstacles. Neither method is difficult or scary. Most encounters are brief and cover spots are obvious. While many horror games rely on threats to keep the player on edge, the Maw is a lackluster opponent that feels too scripted to be terrifying and too infrequent to be a concern.
Creepiness comes from the world itself. The spirit world is the standout feature, and it is a dark mirror of reality that looks unique enough to captivate and revolt. Human bones sprout from the ground like flowers and the walls appear to be made of dry flesh or paper. Souls of the damned are desiccated husks contorted as though centuries have passed. The music within the parched landscape invokes a distant and lonely feeling thanks to what sounds like a broken music box and sorrowful echoes. That is not to say the real-world is ugly; it presents its abandoned location well enough with good detail; it is just not interesting compared to the strange and foreign hellscape of the spirit world.
Split-screen occurs regularly, although out of the player's control
The core gameplay involves navigating across the two realities. Sometimes this is done at the same time, when the screen is literally split in two and both worlds are presented side-by-side either horizontally or vertically. At first this is quite innovative. You move around and open routes in either world to allow both copies of Marianne to progress. One way to do this is by having an out-of-body experience; Marianne can freeze her real self and explore the spirit world for a limited time, in order to find power nodes and turn on objects. One issue with the split screen is that it makes it hard to focus. Objects can be easily missed if you only look at one side of the screen. You can multi-task, by flicking your eyes back and forth, but this is slow going so often multiple sweeps are required.
The other way to explore the spirit world is to enter it fully by touching one of the mirrors found throughout the resort. This does away with the pesky split-screen hocus-pocus and transfers Marianne to the post-apocalyptic landscape with no time limit. Generally this type of transfer is done in a leap-frog manner. One door might be locked and you must go into the spirit world, to locate a key, and then return. Sometimes the path ahead is blocked with rubble and a convenient mirror nearby takes you to the spirit world where the rubble does not exist.
Both methods of diving into the spirit world are underwhelming after their initial demonstration. The split screen effect is awesome but only makes everything take longer than it should and is forced on the player at random. And diving back and forth through mirrors is a bland linear approach that requires minimal thought. The only part of the dual-reality system that creates excitement is when Marianne interacts with an object, like a clock, and it physically alters the spirit world in real-time. More creativity was needed to navigate the worlds to break away from it feeling like a repeating gimmick.
Through the looking glass, the third-person camera might be clumsy
Whatever world you are exploring, it is done with a fixed camera system, like Silent Hill. This comes with many issues and no benefits, aside from nostalgia. The camera can sometimes obscure interactive objects until you move closer. It also jumps orientation, so walking left suddenly becomes walking right, leading to Marianne doing a loop between connecting rooms. The camera rotates slowly too, so you have to adjust Marianne’s forward direction just to walk straight. When you are running from the Maw, the camera’s constant shifting position is more of a threat than the beast. All of it ends up just being unnecessarily clumsy. It also diminishes the horror factor because the player is an observer of a character who walks like a drunk.
The biggest price you pay for the split world is inconsistent framerate and low performance. Although the game typically maintained 30-40 FPS at the lowest settings, it collapsed to unplayable levels in specific scenes. The most dramatic hits occurred during split-screen moments, resulting in elongated periods of 15-20 FPS without reprieve. Combining the detail from both worlds requires a top end computer and it is difficult to recommend unless you meet the highest requirements. There was also a game-breaking technical issue where items in the inventory kept on duplicating until there were so many that the game froze. This required a complete restart of the campaign and while it was possible to finish the game on the second run, the duplication issue reoccurred.
In a strange move for the narrative, in the back half of the eight-hour game, players will take control of a second character. This other character dives into the minds of others, rather than the spirit world. Typically the minds are deranged, so it ends up being a bit like Observer where you navigate abstract locations with heavy exposition. However the pacing here is terrible, with long sections of exploring at a snail’s pace and lots of repetition. While this is pertinent to Marianne’s tale, it should have been trimmed back or redistributed. The story also could have told a few more of its secrets. Even a tiny bit more transparency could have made the poor ending tolerable and clarified vague events.
Say no more, to The Maw
Despite some visual treats, The Medium has not captured Bloober Team’s best side. It straddles two worlds but loses its footing. Even with a creepy atmosphere, driven by the hellish spirit world, it is not scary. It uses a fixed camera system that merely disconnects the player from the world and makes everything clumsy. When a threat arises, it is easily navigated. And when the spirit world is used to progress, it is handled in an uninspiring linear fashion or with a dual-reality system that looks great but plays like a gimmick. With horribly inconsistent performance and a few technical glitches, neither of The Medium’s worlds are worth visiting right now.