STAFF REVIEW of Medium, The (Xbox Series X)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Medium, The Box art While they’ve only started recently hitting their stride in the past few years, Polish developer Bloober Team has a few notable titles under their belt; The Layers of Fear games, Observer and most recently, Blair Witch. While these may not have set the world on fire, I’ve come to quite enjoy their releases, so when their latest was announced, I sat back and patiently waited. The time has come and The Medium is now released, and the wait has been more than worth it.

A PC and Next-Gen only release for Xbox Series X|S, The Medium is easily Bloober Team’s most ambitious title to date, though having played their previous games, it’s quite a treat seeing not only Easter Eggs hidden throughout, but recognizing mechanics or things that were in their previous games but now vastly improved. For example, there’s one section where you need to follow a dog through the woods for a short time, clearly a nod to their Blair Witch game.

I can watch the scariest or bloodiest movies without any problems, but put a scary game in front of me and a controller in my hand and I’ll usually have a hard time getting through it. This is most likely due to being in control of the actions of the characters instead of a linear experience like watching a movie, so I was a little apprehensive to start The Medium, knowing it was going to have some unsettling and mature undertones. I did manage to get through it until the credits rolled, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, but I was quite tense at certain points due to its audio design, visuals and amazingly voiced antagonist.

“It all starts with a dead girl.” This is how The Medium sets its deeply unsettling tone from the very beginning. Set in Krakow, Poland, in the late 1990’s, you start out playing as Marianne, a young woman that seems to have a special gift in the form of being a medium. She’s able to not just be able to communicate with spirits, but actually enter and explore the spirit world, a world that is almost a reflection of our reality, but as you’d expect, a much darker and more sinister representation, almost barren and desolate. Thing is, she lives in both of these worlds simultaneously, which in its self is used as a game mechanic at times, but more on that shortly.

Marianne is haunted by a vision of a child’s murder, though she’s unsure if this is simply a reoccurring nightmare, a long lost memory or even something that hasn’t happened yet. Nothing is quite as it seems, as Marianne is having to go through one of the most difficult days in her life, putting her father to rest, when she receives a mysterious call from someone claiming to know her, what she is and that he has the answers she’s looking for. Only giving his name, Thomas, he tells her he’s out of time, but to meet her at the Niwa Hotel, a long abandoned communist retreat.

Upon arriving, you quickly start to understand that something isn’t right. Seemingly no one is at Niwa, so you’re going to have to use Marianne’s unique abilities to uncover what happened and why Thomas brought you here. I really don’t want to delve into much more of the story, as it’s quite a thrill ride from beginning to end, best experienced for yourself without any spoilers, but I was completely hooked from that initial phone call from Thomas all the way until the end, not wanting to put the controller down.

I normally have a hard time getting through thriller games like these, but I had to keep continuing to find out what happened, who Thomas was, what her visions meant and how it all came together. It’s a hell of a ride until its final moments, full of terror, anxiousness, puzzle solving, stealth sections, simultaneous realities and some serious mature topics with plenty of symbolism. As Marianne progresses further into Niwa, everything won’t be what you initially thought and expected, as there are plenty of revelations, twist and turns to keep you constantly on your toes. The story is fantastic and the writing extremely well done, constantly slow feeding you just enough to keep you engaged but always making your situation tense, unsure what could happen next.

If I had to make a quick comparison to other games, The Medium takes the best parts from Alan Wake, Resident Evil and Silent Hill, tosses them in a blender and adds its own unique flair to the mix. I kept getting vibes of Alan Wake when I was exploring the spirit world or having to survive chase sequences. It takes classic Resident Evil queues from its fixed camera angles and old school tank controls. This does feel a little archaic at times, but you do get used to it quite quickly, and having these fixed cameras means they can have you experience exactly what they want to you to see at any given moment, so you never really miss anything. As for its Silent Hill comparison, there’s not many games that set the constant tenseness and creepiness much better, especially on its audio front, and The Medium absolutely nailed this, even more so once you’re introduced to The Maw.

“How your perspective changes your perception” is the underlying theme that Bloober Team was going for with all aspects of The Medium, not just from its gameplay, but narrative, aesthetic and even soundtrack. This is even truer once you see the credits roll and need a minute to take it all in, reflecting on the whole experience. This is most prevalent in The Medium’s main gameplay mechanic, the dual reality sections where you control Marianne in both the real and spirit world simultaneously. This allows you to see literally two sides to situations or events that occurred. As they say, there’s always two sides to a story.

Being in two different worlds at the same time give you two completely different perspectives to not only your surroundings, but events and characters that you need to interact with. These worlds are somewhat shared as well. For example, in the spirit world when Marianne gives a mysterious young girl, Sadness, a ball to play with, you’ll notice the ball floating in the real world when she’s tossing it around. The same goes for Marianne though, where if she is thrown around by a sinister creature out to get you in the spirit world, she’ll also get tossed in the real world as well. Remember, the spirit world is almost like a reflection of the real world, but a much darker and unsettling version, yet coexists.

While you won’t always be traversing both worlds simultaneously at all times, when you are, this is easily The Medium’s most unique moments. This is literally two games being played at once, which is why it’s a next-gen only title, as it simply wouldn’t be possible on older hardware. This dual reality isn’t just for narrative purposes though, as some puzzles must be solved across both to progress. For example, maybe a fuse box isn’t working because it’s not worked in many years in the real world, but in the spirit world, a discharge from Marianne’s Spirit Blast ability will give it power back in reality.

This is how you’ll uncover new areas, unlock doors and more, and is just one of Marianne’s unique abilities as a Medium. She’s also able to utilize a Spirit Shield to protect her from dangerous insects that can block her way otherwise. Normally any movement she makes happens in exactly the same way in both worlds, but there are times where you’ll need to utilize her Out of Body experience, allowing her to simply go into a trance in the real world but freely explore in the spirit one. This is very taxing on her though, so it can only be done for a short period of time, usually just enough to hit a specific switch or interact with something needed to progress. For example, maybe a door is locked in the real world, but in the spirit world she can go through, but since her physical body can’t go through walls and objects, this is when she would use her Out of Body ability.

Gameplay is broken into roughly thirds. One third has you controlling Marianne in reality, another third in the spirit world, and the final with the dual reality gameplay explained above. This makes the pacing quite constant and almost as if you’re playing detective on two different fronts. Remember, perspective is going to change your perception, and this is true throughout the whole experience. Learning what happened in the real world might make certain events occur or manifest in the spirit world, usually with some serious symbolism and morality that will tug on your heartstrings.

I was fully expecting my time with The Medium to be filled with cheap jump scares, which would get me, but are often thought of as a cheap tactic to instill fear in the short term. Instead, The Medium doesn’t utilize this at all, instead using its atmosphere to create a constant tenseness and uneasy feeling. This is masterfully done not just with its visuals, of which the fixed cameras help on this front, but I’d argue that the audio was much more important for setting the tone. Legendary composer Akira Yamaoka, best known for the Silent Hill series, creates a brooding soundscape that is filled with not just a fantastic score that sets an uneasy tone, but is also filled with so many minor sounds that makes you wonder what could have made it or if something is behind you. Arkadiusz Reikowski co-composed the other half of The Medium, setting the tone for Marianne’s reality world, also setting a specific tone that matches the scenery and background of your surroundings. Having a soundtrack co-made by these two greats couldn’t be any more fitting for a game that’s all about duality.

Furthering the immersion is a masterful performance from every voice actor, bringing life to the characters in a completely believable way. The great performance from Troy Baker as The Maw will most likely get the most mentions due to his notoriety and popularity, but everyone else involved deserves just as equal credit, as there wasn’t a single poor performance from any of the voice overs. Kelly Burke did a masterful performance as Marianne, not just with delivering lines, but putting emotions into the bigger scenes and subtlety into the smaller narration parts. Graham Vick and Angeli Wall also need to be recognized for their performances for Thomas and Sadness as well, as they portrayed their characters perfectly, adding to the overall experience and immersion.

As for its aesthetic and visual style, inspiration from Zdzislaw Beksinski, a famous Polish artist who did surrealist paintings before his death, was used for the spirit world. After checking out his portfolio online, it’s easy to see the similarities from his disturbing and ominous flair. With 4K visuals, 60 FPS, HDR lighting, Ray tracing, VRR and more, The Medium looks and plays absolutely fantastic, even when controlling the Marianne in the dual worlds simultaneously. Not once was there any slowdown, stuttering or screen tear. The only negatives that I had noted down was that because of the fixed cameras and classic Resident Evil tank controls, sometimes your character can move a little janky at times. You’ll be completely engrossed into The Medium’s world, only to now and then be taken out of the immersion when you’re running in place at a corner, or turning Marianne around in a robotic manner. It’s only a minor gripe, but one that’s constant due to its controls.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make from The Medium before playing even though I was quite excited for it to release, but came away more than impressed. Bloober Team may not be the biggest studio out there but they are consistent, and The Medium proves not only that they’re improving and making better games, but creating experiences that are unique, engaging and one of those titles that stand out. The dual worlds is not only utilized as a storytelling device, but also works brilliantly as a gameplay mechanic as well. The fact that The Medium is also available on Xbox Game Pass means it's available now for you to experience if you're a subscriber with basically no barrier, and I'd argue is still worth the purchase even if you do have Game Pass.

There’s always two sides to a story, and you only know half until you see The Medium to its conclusion. Rather than winning, The Medium is meant to be an experience, which it more than succeeds in. With a deeply immersive narrative and symbolism throughout, it never wore out its welcome with its 8-10 hour length and will be one of those games that I’ve been thinking about long after its credits rolled. The Medium truly is something unique and special.

**The Medium was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 9.5 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 10.0 / 10


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