Bloober Team‘s psychological survival horror game The Medium offers a reality-shifting experience during the Halloween gaming week.
The Medium (PC)
(Poland 2021, developer/publisher: Bloober Team, platforms: PC, PS5, Xbox One Series S/X)
Spirit medium Marianne receives a phone call by the mysterious Thomas who sends her to the abandoned Polish communist-era vacation resort Niwa in Poland where she doesn’t only find out about an almost forgotten massacre, but her own past as well.
Poland’s dark history
The abandoned resort as a failed dream makes for a unique setting, as it draws a bleak picture of communism that resulted in poverty, hunger, and paranoia. Torture by government agents, child abuse and deep psychological traumas that create real demons are the more unsettling subject matters one is confronted with, which have always been part of Bloober Teams’ themes, but this time they’re more interwoven with politics.
Slowly developing characters and plot
Story and character development are so slow-paced that it takes a while before something makes sense. Patience is required to connect all the dots, as one unravels only parts of the resort’s history, its occupants, and finally Marianne’s past. With snippets of information sprinkled everywhere, the story can often feel more convoluted than it actually is, creating headaches instead of suspense at times.
Overlong cutscenes are also proof that sometimes less is more. Even if they’re executed very well artistically, there’s simply too much talk going on without making the characters any more sympathetic or the story segments any easier to follow.
Not appropriate for atmosphere
Despite the dark subject matter and general creepiness, Marianne’s wisecracking and jokes are inappropriate, e.g. giving bolt cutters a silly spy nickname. The abundant use of swear words is also irritating, as the dark atmosphere, setting, violent sequences, disgusting creature designs like a hellhound or a childeater, in addition to nightmarish vistas that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Lovecraft story, already set the perfect scene for horror fans.
Piecing together framents of the past
In order to understand the whole story, one can look for echoes of the past that are attached to certain objects. Turning them around makes glowing cracks visible that unlock conversations. Reconstructing events from the past also works by using Marianne’s power of insight: One tries to hold together dissolved shapes of people, which is similar to finding the right frequencies with a radio tuner. Looking for all the objects and apparitions as well as fiddling around with them can obviously become rather repetitive, though.
Unlike past Bloober Team games, one doesn’t make any decisions, as there aren’t any branching story segments or alternative endings. This might be disappointing to those who have followed the company’s output so far, but it makes sense with the emotional and touching ending that effectively brings the two realities together, despite adding an unnecessarily obscure cliffhanger added later on.
The game is clearly based on Silent Hill‘s (or David Lynch’s) idea of two merging realities. The difference is that moving in the real and spirit world happens at the same time and is presented via split-screen. Watching Marianne’s alter ego talk to someone in the spirit world and seeing her talk to herself in her own world certainly makes for some weird cut-scenes.
One still has to switch between realities to interact with the environment, though. In some cases one takes control of Marianne’s spirit form to solve puzzles. However, time pressure when being out of Marianne’s body that is connected to a slowly fading spirit version can be frustrating.
Despite this problem, the concept of two realities creates some clever puzzles. For example, one literally turns back time with a clock in one reality to make a passage that was blocked by a door reappear by timely deterioration. Another less imaginative and often repeating example is that one has to power up a fusebox in the alternative reality with Marianne’s alter ego so that it works in the other world, too.
Puzzling and surreal realities
Puzzles are clearly aimed at beginners, as one doesn’t do a lot of backtracking and is usually confined to a few rooms without carrying around a lot of items. The biggest challenge is simply to find them, as even with a hotspot function, one can easily miss them or the points of interaction.
Just as in classic survival horror games, solutions can be a bit obscure, but they usually fit the surreal atmosphere, e.g. seeing a small dollhouse and then being able to visit its rooms via mirrors and collecting items that have to be put in a specific order on top of a fireplace. Clues aren’t far away, and one can often overcome each problem with a bit of trial and error.
Thankfully, puzzles aren’t always about finding and using items, as one has to figure out the names of some people’s souls which are necessary to help them leave the spirit world they’re stuck in. So in one case, one has to guess who is sitting next to each other in a conference room, using clues one has gathered. It’s not exactly mind-blowing investigation and deduction material as in a Sherlock Holmes title, but it’s a still a nice change of pace.
However, some obstacles seem to extend playtime, e.g. taking a long detour to get hold of bolt cutters that are constantly out of reach, something Marianne is also very fond of commenting on. After one finally acquires them, they are used almost constantly on locked doors and gates.
Sneak and run away in frustration
Something that has troubled past Bloober Team games makes an unwelcome return once again: stealth and chase sequences that rely too much on trial-and-error as well as perfect timing and luck. Holding one’s breath and sneaking past an enemy might be tense in theory, but in practice these segments are unfair and unnecessary, as more luck than strategy is required to pass them.
The chase sequences aren’t without merits, as some are quite intense and later use the change between realities quite effectively. But with often unresponsive controls and not enough time to react, memorizing each corner and action becomes more and more frustrating.
More gameplay elements thrown into the mix
Another essential power is a spirit shield that helps Marianne go through butterflies for a limited amount of time, which inexplicably results in death if one isn’t protected. The shield is also used by a second character one can play later on in order to survive attacks from tentacles. As defending only works by pressing the appropriate button the moment the character is hit, it becomes a case of annoying luck and no skill, making these parts so superfluous one wonders why they were included in the first place.
Despite all the puzzles, chase, sneak, and light combat elements, the term “walking simulator” best describes most of the experience. Unfortunately one spends a lot of time walking around without anything happening, a perfect example being the woods that look rather similar to and boring as in Blair Witch (although there are some effective scary scenes, too). Being confronted by endless and expanding corridors will be familiar to anyone who has played Layers of Fear, making this yet another deja vu it could have done without.
Scarily beautiful to look at and listen to
The presentation of the game is great with its detailed life-like characters and especially the imaginatively frightening monster design. While the cinematic cut-scenes are visually more impressive than the surroundings, these still feature some detailed textures and impressive lighting effects.
Voice acting is of a high quality, minus the unnecessary swearing, but the real highlights are the terrifying sound design and ambient music. The latter is no surprise, as Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka was involved in the production of the score. It might not be on par with his original work, but the music does a very good job to create various moods with the use of synth, guitar, and piano pieces. As is to be expected, when it comes to sung parts, these are hauntingly beautiful as well.
A weird and flawed horror experience
The Medium tries very hard to be the next Silent Hill with its twisted alternate reality and even the involvement of the original music composer. While the two-simultaneous-screens idea makes for some interesting puzzles and cut-scenes, the game still suffers from what has riddled Bloober Team releases from the beginning: too much exposition of a story that could be told in a less obscure and better paced way.
Psychological horror fans looking for a memorable plot or characters will be disappointed, while classic adventure game fans will turn away because of annoying chase/sneak sequences. However, if one stays with the game, one will be immersed in a disturbing spirit world with its strange inhabitants and terrifying monsters that is somehow worth all the gameplay and storytelling flaws.
Buy the digital version for PS5 on
the PSN store
Buy the digital version for Xbox Series S/X on
the Xbox store
If you liked reading this article, make sure to LIKE it or comment on it on EMR’s Facebook page :). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG or Amazon links and buying the products also helps ;).