When “The Medium” was revealed last year, it looked like one of the more promising offerings on the Xbox Series X. The psychological horror elements powered by more advanced hardware made it stand out among a crowded lineup.
The reveal had a “Evil Within” vibe, and the visuals were compelling enough to force me to pause and admire the work. After a short delay, “The Medium” was finally released and it’s different from what I was expecting. Instead of a tense and action-oriented affair, the project by Bloober Team was slower-paced and puzzle-centric.
I was expecting a Polish version of “Silent Hill,” but “The Medium” is more akin to Supermassive Games’ “Dark Pictures Anthology.” It’s a narrative-driven game with an air of mystery as players find themselves controlling Marianne, the title character. She’s the medium in question and dealing with the death of her adopted father. With the last thread of family gone, she feels unmoored with the supernatural powers she’s been dealing with all her life.
A PLACE OF SECRETS
That malaise changes when she receives a mysterious phone call telling her to go to the Niwa Resort for answers about her abilities. Upon arriving, she discovers that it’s a dilapidated compound from Poland’s Communist past. It’s a place overflowing with secrets, and the player has to uncover them using Marianne’s powers.
Bloober Team teaches players how that works early on and sets up the building blocks for the campaign’s advanced puzzles later on. Marianne has the ability to find hidden objects in a room and feel emotions tied to them. These are called echoes and her powers let her listen to moments of the past. If players pick up a telephone, they can hear 15-year-old conversations tied to the item.
Her more important power is that she can enter into and interact with the spirit world. Through her adventures, she’ll encounter points where she’ll exist in the real world and spirit plane at the same time. Bloober Team splits the screen showing Marianne exploring the two realms that mirror each other structurally.
It’s gimmicky but presents players with unusual puzzles. Because Marianne is venturing through two places at once, obstacles in the real world could prevent her from exploring rooms and spaces in the spirit realm and vice versa. Players often have to unlock a path in one world to proceed in the other.
“The Medium” also presents players with another solution. Marianne can explore more places in the spirit world by performing an out-of-body experience. By untethering her essence from her corporeal form, she can rush through out-of-reach spirit places but only for a few seconds. She then returns to her body.
THE MEDIUM’S POWERS
The protagonist also has a Spirit Shield to protect herself from the realm’s swarming insects and Spirit Blast that can activate machines in the real world. These abilities require energy from Spirit Wells, a resource that players must discover and manage.
Bloober Team layers these gameplay elements into an elaborate story as Marianne explores the resort ruins. She meets a spirit-realm entity named Sadness, who helps guide players through the initial mysteries of the Communist era locale. It’s where a massacre took place, but beyond that, Marianne zeroes in on specific inhabitants who hold answers to her past.
Finding them won’t be easy because Niwa Resort is also host to a few restless spirits who have mutated and turned into outright monsters. Players run across a Hound, a Childeater and an unkillable Maw. They stalk Marianne and others while creating most of the visceral moments. The protagonist sneaks past the creatures or runs from them down winding corridors. Players can’t actually fight them directly.
Although these confrontations are exciting, they’re also problematic. Moments such as the chase scenes aren’t well designed and have to be played multiple times before players figure out where to run. The stealth scenarios are equally infuriating mostly because monsters such as the Maw are invisible if they end up in the real world. It can be hard to spot amid a game that’s generally dark.
The second drawback to “The Medium” is that the visuals are glitchy at times. For all the graphical feats, the game has strange flares and visual miscues that take players out of the experience.
The third major flaw is that “The Medium” relies on found objects to tell the history of Niwa and the major characters in the campaign. Often, these storytelling elements are too vague or confusing.
Players have to figure out for themselves which character is referenced or how they’re connected. The awkwardness takes the thunder out of some of the major revelations.
“The Medium” recovers some of its flow toward the end, but still, the finale is uncertain and disappointing. The horror game is a mixed bag at best, one with a few clever puzzles and an intriguing story, but which doesn’t quite pay off on its promises.
1½ stars out of 4
Platform: Xbox Series X|S, PC
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