Over the past few years, Bloober Team has started to make a name for itself in the horror genre thanks to games like Layers of Fear and its rendition of Blair Witch. While none of their horror games thus far have blown me or critics away, their futuristic title Observer (which I own but have not played) received generally positive reviews from critics and players alike. However, none of those games had the pressure that their latest title, The Medium, has on its shoulders, which is the first Xbox Series X/S console exclusive. Initially spitballed as a potential PS3/Xbox 360/Wii U title, the project was shelved until consoles had enough power to handle the game’s technology and ambition, and with the latest generation of consoles ticking all the boxes, Microsoft snapped up The Medium as a console exclusive. But does The Medium deliver a maiden Xbox Series X/S exclusive voyage that elevates Bloober Team’s status and kickstarts the generation for Microsoft?
Set in Krakow, Poland, during the 1990s, the story focuses on Marianne, a medium who has the ability to see her white-haired spirit self on the other side – known as The Spirit World. After a disturbing dream, players will play out a scene that will introduce them to the game’s dual-world, split-screen system. After, Marianne receives a phone call from a stranger named Thomas stating that she is his only hope and to get to the Niwa Resort as fast as she can as time is running out. Arriving at the now-abandoned resort (for reasons we later discover), Marianne begins her search for Thomas, which thrusts her into a dark descent between two worlds to find answers to questions she’s been asking her whole life.
The Niwa Resort has seen better days
Marianne will need to explore her surroundings to glean some of the story beats, such as reading letters strewn across the areas and reconstructing memories. For the most part the story is interesting and weaves together nicely thanks to a well-written and intriguing cast of characters who are enhanced by solid voice acting. But unfortunately the ending leaves a lot to be desired, so much so that I wondered what the actual point of my 8-10 hour playtime was.
Previous Bloober Team games like Layers of Fear and Observer utilised a first-person view, whereas The Medium uses a third-person viewpoint – and not an over-the-shoulder view either with Bloober Team deciding to give this an old-school feeling with a fixed camera system. It certainly serves the style of gameplay well and helps build the tension occasionally, but as with all fixed camera systems, the controls can sometimes be a bit awkward when camera angles change.
The main gameplay hook is based around Marianne’s ability to see and interact with both worlds, and what players do in one world may affect the other, with the majority of the game’s puzzles using this formula. For example, in the real world there might be an obstacle blocking a door, which means that neither real-world or spirit world Marianne can progress until the said obstacle is moved. Other puzzles are more involved and require both worlds to work together, such as restoring power to a locked door or machinery. These sequences will take place using a split-screen view, either sectioned off vertically or horizontally, which can feel distracting as I wasn’t sure which side to look at sometimes.
During these scenes, Marianne’s spirit can have what is called an Out of Body Experience – a mechanic that allows Marianne to essentially freeze her real-world body but walk around in the spirit world for a limited amount of time before her body starts to decay to access areas that her actual body cannot. In the spirit world Marianne can acquire what I’ll call spirit power, which allows her to defend herself from swarms of moths as well as restore power to dead power sources.
Do the shopping trolley
Sadly, far too often the gameplay sequences drag on for longer than they should and end up feeling tedious due to long periods of walking with little action or repetitive tasks
Other sections of the game will see Marianne use mirrors to switch between worlds. I much preferred this style of dual-reality gameplay compared to the split-screen as it allowed me to take in more of the atmosphere of the world I was in. But like most of the game, the mirror portals are neat until they overstay their welcome, with some puzzles requiring several trips back and forth between worlds to solve. In fairness, some of them aren’t puzzles, they’re more like small fetch quests that ask you to find items to unlock or activate something.
Although it’s billed as a psychological horror, The Medium and its world is more creepy than scary. Bloober Team decided to omit jump scares for an unsettling atmosphere, and if there’s one thing that Bloober Team does nail it’s the atmosphere, which benefits from incredible audio work by Silent Hill legend Akira Yamaoka, as well as Arkadiusz Reikowski. Whether it’s walking through a forest in the real world or wherever you are in the spirit world, every area is full of detail and feels like it belongs in the world.
Progressing through the story is not just about solving puzzles, Marianne will need to avoid being killed by an enemy that stalks the worlds, which will involve some chase and stealth sequences, but these are far too easy to cause your heart rate to elevate.
Sadly, far too often the gameplay sequences drag on for longer than they should and end up feeling tedious due to long periods of walking with little action or repetitive tasks. There’s a sequence in the second half of the game where you’re playing as another character where the game even tells you that it’s tedious. While I’d like to think it was the devs being clever, somehow I think this should be filed under happenstance. Then there are the confusing design decisions, like why does it take four-five uses of your bolt cutters to cut through the chain? Or why in an abandoned building do you even need to use bolt cutters when you could just smash the glass and be on your way? Furthermore, the running speed changes depending on the scene; in some you can sprint like an Olympian, while in others you can jog slowly or you can’t run at all, which can be super frustrating.
The spirit world has some solid decor
Running on the Xbox Series X, The Medium ran like a dream (the good kind, not the nightmare kind from the game) at 4K resolution and 30FPS. Some people may lament that it’s not 60FPS, but for a title like this, 60FPS isn’t a necessity. The Series X version also supports raytracing, and several times I had to stop and just admire how good some areas looked.
It’s obvious that The Medium is a labour of love for the team at Bloober Team, which is why it’s a shame that for every time the story or world starts to pull you in, the gameplay drags you back out. The Medium is far from a bad game because I certainly enjoyed parts of it, it just needed to be a bit shorter and tighter. The fact that it’s on Game Pass should mitigate some of the criticism, because it’s a game worth playing if you’re a horror fan, but not one you’d pay full price for. If you’re looking for a third-person horror game with a unique hook, I’d recommend keeping an eye out for Song of Horror’s console launch in early 2021.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X // Review code supplied by publisher
- Bloober Team
- Bloober Team
- Xbox Series X&S / PC
- January 28, 2021