Going into Bloober Team’s latest title, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. To say that the developer’s take on horror has evolved and changed throughout its projects would be a bit of an understatement. From the jump-scares of the original Layers of Fear, to the murky and tense world of Observer, the studio has made a name for itself on several different sides of the horror spectrum. With The Medium, though, the team seems to forego the past focuses on jump scares, and instead focuses on a style of horror reminiscent of the Silent Hill games and the original Resident Evil.
In The Medium, players step into the shoes of a woman named Marianne, who is a literal medium that can connect with the spirit world. Shortly after the death of a loved one, Marianne receives a mysterious phone call, beckoning her to the remains of an old Polish work camp. From here, players are thrust into a dark mystery as they work to uncover the secrets behind the Niwa (pronounced Niva) work camp, including what happened to the camp’s occupants several years earlier.
Unlike Blair Witch, or the previous titles the team has released, The Medium goes for more of a fixed camera angle than a true third-person or first-person angle. This constricts the player's view quite a bit, and while I found that being unable to look around the environments as freely as I wanted was annoying at times—the environments here are easily the best part of the game—the constriction caused by the fixed angles helped drive the amount of tension up throughout the entirety of the game.
The camera setup feels really good as you explore the Niwa resort, which is put together quite meticulously. The amount of detail in the world is astounding and really helps bring the abandoned location to life as you move through each of its shadowy rooms. Flickering lights and strange sounds amplify the tension that is present, only helping to further escalate the anxiety that is already growing in your gut as you dig deeper.
It doesn’t take long for Marianne to meet her first friend, a little girl named Sadness, a character that might seem unimportant at first, but soon helps push the player deeper into the horrors that await.
Do you see what I see?
Bloober Team wastes no time in throwing players into its new dual-reality gameplay, which sees Marianne exploring both the physical world and a weird spirit world at the same time. In most cases this breaks up the gameplay into a format similar to split screen, and it makes for a really interesting way to explore the environments the developers have worked so hard on. This feature is used predominantly throughout the game, so players need to get used to focusing on both scenes very quickly.
For the most part, experiencing the game in dual reality is fine. It allows you to go into what Bloober Team calls “out of body” experiences, which lets you explore the spirit world and get past barriers you can’t move in the real world. It’s a unique way to diversify the game’s puzzles and opens the door for some unusual solutions.
Despite the perks dual reality does get annoying at certain times, especially during intense chase scenes. Focusing on both sides of the screen at the same time is extremely difficult when you’re focused on getting away from the game's main enemy, The Maw. This often led to me running into walls and getting caught, which forced me to retry from a predetermined save point, something that was often several minutes behind where I died. It was a minor annoyance, but one that grew as the chase scenes continued through the game.
Interpreting the classics
One thing that The Medium does really well is atmosphere. The best horror games focus on atmosphere and ambiance to jack up the anxiety in its players and Bloober Team does a really good job this time around. Unlike some horror games which focus on jump scares and other cheap tactics, The Medium is absolutely rife with tension that only builds as players explore. The sounds of dripping water and footsteps as you move through the abandoned halls of Niwa are fantastic and really help drive the fear that rules that place home.
There are a lot of callbacks to horror classics like Resident Evil and the Silent Hill games, with much of the music sometimes feeling like it was ripped straight out out of the Silent Hill OST. Audio design is one of the best ways to push a horror game to the next level, and The Medium delivers in almost all aspects of that particular category.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down
These highs are pockmarked with lows, though, and all the good comes to a grinding halt as players dig deeper into Marianne’s story.
The Medium tries to tell a deep and meaningful story that lets players connect to the characters and experience their heartache. Unfortunately, it’s never really sure what it wants to do. There are times where the players are completely ripped from controlling Marianne as they explore other characters and it just feels like a cheap way to go about expanding on that part of her story.
There are also a lot of instances of what writers call telling and not showing. This is something that can completely ruin a story, as the audience doesn’t get to discover things for themselves, nor are they given a chance to come to that conclusion. Instead, the game simply says it is, so it must be. There were quite a few big story reveals that felt hollow because of this, and it’s something I’d love to see developers stepping away from, especially in story-driven titles like The Medium.
At its core, The Medium does a good job of offering a unique take on the old, haunted location tropes. There are some nice twists, and while they don’t reach their full potential, they do tell a decent story. Unfortunately, all of the good bits of the story are wasted on an unfulfilling ending that feels rushed. The game drops its biggest twist and then you’re immediately walking into the ending without any chance to digest it. This is further made worse by an after-credits cutscene that almost feels like Bloober Team leaving the story open for a sequel.
Despite the wrong steps, there is good in The Medium. If you want a decent horror story to wade through, which offers telltale signs of the classics we’ve come to know and love, then Bloober Team’s latest is just that. There are mistakes along the way, and some things could have been done better, but ultimately The Medium feels like a game that meets you in the middle, straddling the line between mediocre and really good.
This review is based on a PC code provided by the publisher. The Medium is rated M and will release on PC and Xbox Series X|S on January 28, 2021.
- Beautiful environments
- Fantastic audio design
- Interesting dual reality gameplay
- Unique puzzle designs
- Too much telling and not enough showing in the story
- Dual reality gameplay can be frustrating at times
- Puzzles are never that challenging
- Many events feel too scripted
Josh Hawkins posted a new article, The Medium review: Halfway there
'Layers of the Year' ?
I wrote this while getting over food poisoning :(.
Thanks for pointing it out, though. Fixed! :D
"woah, living on a prayer"
We got each other and that's a lot