The Medium Review
As a genre, horror can be tricky to implement in games due to its reliance on players being invested enough to suspend their disbelief. Fail a carefully scripted segment one too many times and the puppetmaster behind the ghouls and ghosts that taunt you become incredibly visible. No matter how gruesome the visions on display, there’s the fear of everything reducing to pass or fail irritation. When that artifice is revealed, can it ever really be brought back again?
Bloober Team’s latest project, The Medium, tries its best to avoid this question by carefully curating your encounters with a handful of physical manifestations of evil, but every now and then it trips up due to a need for conflict, and is robbed of any greater success by other hamfisted elements.
Set in Poland in the late 90s, The Medium sees supernaturally attuned Marianne explore an abandoned Soviet-era resort called Siwa. Reportedly the scene of a mysterious massacre in the past, it has since been shut down and left to rot. As a medium, Marianne can see both sides of the world; a brush with death at an early age gave her the ability to see beyond the veil. As such she can see the hidden horrors of Siwa with startling clarity.
The Medium interprets this by having the gameplay out largely in split-screen. In one half you explore the Siwa resort, an exercise in Soviet decadence, all brutalist exteriors, wood-panelled interiors, and futurist leaning adverts.
A little treat
In the other, Marianne – now with a shock of white hair and curious flowery growth on her arm indicating her spiritual powers – picks through the spirit of the resort. It exists in that world as a rotting cadaver, walls covered with fungus, bodies looming out of the walls, doors turned orifices covered by fleshy growths.
The plot slowly circles its inevitable conclusion in the second half – keen observers will have long twigged at the reveal.
It’s a brilliant conceit, and a visual treat as you explore environments in parallel. An interesting take on an implementation of horror visuals that have been around since Silent Hill, an influence the team wears on their sleeve. It’s also worth noting that the score (by Silent Hill veteran Akira Yamaoka and Arkadiusz Reikowski) is an important component in the tapestry of discomfort, adding some great texture through discordant strings and brooding synth pulses.
Most of the game’s puzzles come from working out how to navigate both worlds in tandem, learning about hidden happenings via the spirit world, and using those to progress in the real world. Marianne does a fair bit of exorcising by finding the names of tortured spirits so she can release them.
The game’s version of an out of body experience also lets you focus on your spirit form to dive further into the spiritual plane, probing further into Siwa than your physical body can manage.
Puzzling is sadly too-often reduced to the too-and-fro business of ferrying items between the split worlds, with mirrors eventually allowing you to pass wholesale into the other dimension in order to circumvent obstacles and piece together the mysteries with real-world consequences.
Bloober Team tries to imbue a tactile nature to some elements of the game, with Marianne needing to cut through fleshy spirit doors with a razor in the spirit world, as well as a need to use a spiritual shield to burn her way through swarms of moths. Sadly there’s no real challenge – everything is in service of progressing the narrative.
Speaking of which, the plot of The Medium is bifurcated in two at many points, much like its world. Starting with an in-media res conversation with a mysterious character, the story stitches together events of the past to the current state of Siwa as it also connects Marianne’s current state of mind with her own past trauma.
The plot slowly circles its inevitable conclusion in the second half, but handles itself with a dose of ambiguity that doesn’t really do any favours to the impact its revelations have. Keen observers will have long twigged at the reveal that is heavily foreshadowed, and a cop-out ending makes the whole affair feel like an early 2000s straight to DVD horror.
Whilst the aesthetics of the game are second to none, the voicework and scripting could do some work. Despite being set in Poland, the game is voiced entirely in American and at times the expletive-laden script veers into self-parody. When the player is put in the shoes of Thomas, a character from Siwa’s past, his rage becomes ripe for ridicule, a far cry from Marianne’s more playful and considered performance.
This also blights the game’s main antagonist, a spindly monster voiced by Troy Baker, known as The Maw that stalks Marianne through the game, barking lurching prose and threatening to “wear her” over and over again. It’s meant to be threatening, but it’s a case of perhaps leaving things best left unsaid as the threats start to lose meaning fairly quickly.
The Maw’s implementation as a foe is similarly mishandled. Bar a few sections it’s very easy to avoid and those where it isn’t as easy to bypass stick out through a lack of clear signposting, and any fear it might impose gives way to rote frustration.
As a horror game, The Medium doesn’t have enough resistance or solid scares overall, and as a tone piece, it often misses the mark with a lack of maturity and care in scripting.
It’s for the best then that these sections are few and far between, and Marianne spends most of her time exploring the dual-reality of various environments, but it would be well served by going a little more than skin deep on the meaning and history of its admittedly skin-crawling imagery.
Bloober Team’s lurid colour schemes and mouldering constructions really hammer home the feel of the festering, unsettled horrors that you uncover through investigation, but they lack the elegant Freudian and Jungian connotations of Silent Hill’s adornment of inner-horrors writ physical.
A mixed bag
Some points in the game also see you delve into the minds of characters in a sort of grim-dark take on Psychonauts. It’s here that the game’s environmental work at its best as things go more abstract. Exploring the putrid rot at the core of someone’s psyche is rendered as tentacles infiltrating a childhood home, and the bizarre mashup of a slaughterhouse and communist secret police bureaucracy that is rendered in lurid red tones is a surreal highlight.
As a horror game, The Medium doesn’t have enough resistance or solid scares overall, and as a tone piece, it often misses the mark with a lack of maturity and care in scripting. The core conceit of the game rears its head unexpectedly as it fails to reconcile its deep themes with its desire for shock, and its desire to create a horror experience without any strong mechanical grounding. The game doesn’t really provide anything to bridge its evocative artwork to its less than accomplished themes.
For those that want to explore a fascinating looking interpretation of a spiritual world, however, The Medium is a rambling holiday in a wonderful macabre charnel house, but if you want something a little more bracing, you might want to look elsewhere.