Horror games have evolved from it’s classic 1990’s roots. The Medium promises a spiritual return to form while adding plenty of its own unique ideas and mechanics. Does the game accomplish it’s ambitious goals, or collapse under its own weight?
The Medium is a third-person phycological horror game developed & produced by Bloober Team; and released exclusively on the Xbox Series X|S & Windows PC on January 29th, 2021. This *STORY SPOILER FREE* review will cover the Xbox Series X version of the game.
Note: Any and all plot info has either been seen in trailers, interviews or occurs very early in-game. Screenshots reveal nothing of value to the plot or story; and are used strictly to reaffirm points made in the review.
A medium is somebody who posses supernatural powers which allows them to see, hear & interact with the Spirit Realm. When the emotional connection with an environment is strong enough; a medium is also able to physically coexist in both the Spirit Realm & the material world simultaneously.
Where the Material World is no different than our own; the Spirt Realm is neither Heaven, Hell nor Limbo; but rather a reality connected very closely to our own. They’re so closely connected that some Lost Souls may linger in after death; for one reason or another.
The Main Plot
The Medium prominently follows Marianne, who is herself a medium. After recently using her powers to help her recently deceased foster father move on from the Spirit Realm; she receives a mysterious phone-call from a mysterious man begging for her help.
Haunted by dreams of a child’s murder, a suspicious Marianne decides to investigate; bringing her to the abandoned ‘Niwa Hotel’. It’s soon discovered that nothing less than an unthinkable tragedy beyond belief occurred many years ago; leaving the resort in ruins.
Upon entering the hotel, Marianne discovers a Lost Soul of a little girl named Sadness; who helps Marianne on her endeavours. However, Sadness isn’t the only entity taking refuge at Niwa Hotel; as monstrous entity known as The Maw ferociously lurks within the Spirit World.
It’s clear that Bloober Team has kept many details close to chest; and for very good reason. There is a *lot* more to The Medium‘s story than what is discussed above; however going into any further details would travel into spoilerific territory.
The Medium‘s story is ambitious & deep, yet is confident enough to trust the player’s ability to unravel its’ secrets. It uses its phycological horror elements to dive deep into mature themes & topics; which are at times become very sensitive & disturbing.
This game is successful in approaching these deeper elements; not just because they’re shocking, but rather that they serve the overall story and characters. At no point is The Medium horrific for the sake of it; every scare, confrontation and line of dialogue has an important place in the story.
Marianne is layered with emotional depth, personality & flaws. Her powers may be a central point of the story; but her captivating development allows her to standout on her own. In extension, other characters such as Sadness also stand out from their stereotypical roles.
Simply put, The Medium‘s story is nothing short of outstanding in every regard. From its otherworldly premise to the wonderfully realized characters & themes; it proves that horror games can be more than the sum of their parts.
Despite some downright creepy segments and heart pounding encounters with The Maw; The Medium isn’t actually all that scary. The game subverts expectations of the standard horror game; which may be disappointing to some looking for a genuine scare.
Instead the game focuses on it’s own unique merits in order to deliver an incredibly unique experience. For me this worked incredibly well, as the game still did more than enough to dig itself under my skin.
For myself, the game’s intelligent use of subtlety is infinitely more effective than overdone jump scares & gruesome murders. In fact there’s only a single jump scare in the entire game; and it’s effective because of how subtle & atmospheric the rest of the game is.
Despite The Medium being a rock solid experience from start to finish; some fans may walk away disappointed from the lack of traditional horror. That being said, this style of horror worked great for myself and I was properly frightened throughout.
Dual-Screen & Fixed Camera
The Medium‘s primary gameplay attraction is the innovative dual-screen gameplay. This new feature has players control Marianne in both the material world & Spirit Realm simultaneously; granting access to a whole new way to traverse the world.
Additionally, the game features fixed camera angles to view the world through. This nod to classic 1990’s horror games may remove awkward camera angles; but more importantly it allows players to better comprehend the dual-screen worlds.
Depending on what environment Marianne is in, the screen can be cut vertical or horizontally. This keeps the revolutionary new mechanic fresh, as it mixes up the way that screens are divided often. When viewing items in both worlds, screen sizes can also be altered for easier viewing.
The size of the dual-screen changes for other mechanics as well; such as out-of-body experiences & reconstructing memory shards. This new feature is ground-breaking and brilliantly realized; resulting in an incredibly fresh horror experience.
Core Gameplay & Abilities
The Medium entrusts players with the psychic abilities of a medium; providing a fresh approach to the game design. Unlike many of its horror counterparts, The Medium has no combat whatsoever; instead focusing on the usage of these new abilities.
Marianne has many abilities that can be used in the material world. Using her insight ability, Marianne is able to uncover secrets; such as important clues & footprints. She’s also able to listen to echoes or reconstruct memory shards when inspecting important items in the world.
In the Spirit World, Spirit Wells need to be accessed in order to utilized her powers. Once full, she’s able to use more powerful abilities abilities such as Spirit Shield & Spirit Blasts; which can aid her in solving puzzles and surviving deadly encounters.
When an obstacle blocks her material world body; Marianne can split into an out-of-body experience. This allows her to move through the Spirit Realm freely, without the restrictions of the material world for a limited time. However, if in this state too long she’ll die!
Players will need to be mindful of their abilities as they make their way through the hotel. These mechanics are designed for solving environmental puzzles by manipulating reality & thinking through logical solutions.
With incredible level design that is complicated enough to provoke thinking, yet simple enough to solve without getting stuck; The Medium strikes gold with a balanced experience. It’s overall a challenging & rewarding system that stays fresh throughout the game.
Graphics & Performance
Right out of the gate it’s clear that The Medium was built for next-gen hardware. The game literally runs two game worlds at the same exact time; with only a few issues to report across the board. It’s one of the most impressive thing’s I’ve seen a game engine do.
The Medium runs at an impressive 4K resolution; with ray-tracing integrated into the experience for practical usage. The game utilizes the Xbox Series X’s SSD to accomplish a seamless cinematic experience without any loading screens.
This is an absolutely gorgeous looking game. Realistic shadows, dynamic lighting effects and high quality textures are impressive throughout the game. Even if character models ooze with a slight-bit of uncanny valley; they are filled to the brim with detail & realistic animation.
Overall, The Medium is truly a “next-gen” experience on the Xbox Series X. It’s a photorealistic beast of a game, and it’s quite understandable as to why it’s not available on previous generation consoles.
The game features a photorealistic art style, which is truly brought to life with the game’s impressive performance. Everything in the material world visually looks just shy of real life; which reinforces what photorealistic games should strive to be.
The visual style of the Spirit Realm is inspired by polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński‘s surreal artwork. Hauntingly beautiful, it’s graphicly one of the most impressive aspects of The Medium. This also goes for the realm’s few but freakish creature designs; which are simply haunting.
Unfortunately the game only runs at 30 frames-per-second; which surprisingly isn’t noticeable for the majority of the game. It only becomes an issue during the rare few occurrences where the framerate slightly dips between some cutscene to gameplay transitions.
There was also a brief lighting issue that had little blue & pink dots reflecting off of certain reflective surfaces during a cutscene. However, the issue has yet to reoccur in the game, but is worth noting in case others run into this issue.
The Audio Design
While The Medium has no shortage of disturbing & frightful imagery; its’ audio design is the most likely to cause uneasiness among players. The natural sounds of echoing hallways of the Niwa Hotel and the howling wind of the Spirit Realm build a mysterious atmosphere ripe for scares.
Every sound is designed to trigger a subconscious reaction before the player’s brain even registers a thoughtful response. This is one of many ways the game uses natural senses to inform the player of the surrounding world.
Ultimately the sound design is what makes the horrific aspects of The Medium so memorable. Every horror game attempts to achieve this; and The Medium raises the bar with it’s great attention to detail with its sound design.
It has to be said that the each voice performance in this game is absolutely stellar. While they’re genuinely all outstanding; Troy Baker’s performance as The Maw sends shivers down the spine every time he’s on screen.
Bloober Team’s Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka co-composed the soundtrack of The Medium; and they deliver in spades. Instead of crafting a separate entity; the music directly influences the sound design’s goal to inform & scare the player.
This excellent soundtrack is used as a tool to set the mood of the atmosphere; mostly avoiding loud & aggressive tracks to force a reaction onto a player. The music works in unison with the sound design to create a more focused & enjoyable experience; resulting in an even more effective feeling of distress.
The Medium is a game I’ve been looking forward too since it was announced in May 2020. The original concept and ambitious technological advancements were enough to hook me. That said my expectations weren’t high, as I’m hard to please when it comes to horror.
Much to my delight, The Medium isn’t just another horror title; but a completely unique take on the genre that offers more than just jump scares. It’s a thought provoking & disturbing story that uses subtlety to it’s advantage; while focusing on its innovative mechanics.
The story itself is my favourite aspect of The Medium. It’s a very real, personal story that uses the paranormal activity & horror aspects as metaphors. There are so many discoveries, twists & turns that by the end of the game I was emotionally spent; in the best possible way.
The Medium is a stellar phycological horror game that exceeds expectations with ambitious game design, innovative new ideas & a brilliantly written story soaked with passion. The first true next-generation experience on Xbox Series X, earning a deserved 94%!
The Spirit Pixel
We were provided a game code for The Medium for review purposes; but this has no effect on the authenticity of the praise or criticism the game received. For the review I played The Medium on the Xbox Series X using a standard controller.
The Medium launched on January 21st, 2021 on Xbox Series X|S and PC via Windows 10 PC, Epic Games Store & Steam for $49.99. The game is also available on Xbox Game Pass. To learn more about The Medium be sure to visit the official website and Twitter page!
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