The Medium developer Bloober Team has made a name for themselves over the past five years with a series of interesting, if flawed, entries into the horror genre. Leaning towards the more psychological end of horror rather than action packed gore, titles such as Layers of Fear and Blair Witch have demonstrated that the Polish team are well versed in getting under players’ skin.
The Medium is by far their most ambitious and high profile game so far, especially as it’s one of the earliest Xbox Series X|S exclusives and the innovative way it looks to take advantage of the added oomph of processors and the benefits of SSD storage. Reviewing the game on PC, and testing both a standard HDD and an SSD, the latter is essential to get the best performance.
Having originally been conceived at a time where it would have been set to release on Wii U and the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles, The Medium has certainly come a long way from its earliest origins. The unique selling point of the dual reality perspective is perhaps the most obvious aspect that requires the increased power of contemporary technology, but the graphical fidelity and motion capture quality also clearly benefit from the later release date. The game also features important performances from Silent Hill veterans, with the ubiquitous Troy Baker putting on a supremely creepy performance as the terrifying Maw, and composer Akira Yamaoka bringing his personal brand of eerie to the score, ably supported by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s vocals on several truly haunting folk style ballads. It should be clear from this that The Medium is heavily influenced by Silent Hill, whilst also offering an interesting East European perspective on the genre.
Set in late 1990s Poland, The Medium features Marianne, a young woman with a mysterious ability to speak to the dead. It’s a unique skill that is initially presented in a highly intimate and emotional opening that also provides an excellent introduction into the world of The Medium, setting the scene well for the far darker storyline that will develop. An almost melancholic atmosphere of personal loss and bereavement permeates the game throughout and makes it a far cry from the usual horror affair. That being said, there are certainly still the requisite jump scares and action sequences to complement this atmosphere.
Following the low-key opening, Marianne finds herself lured to the abandoned Hotel Niwa complex in search of a mysterious man who claims to know the secrets behind her abilities. It soon becomes clear that this hotel is itself haunted by past tragedy and Marianne is caught up in a nightmarish world of trauma, ghostly apparations, and a deadly demonic secret. In order to combat the perils that this situation produces, she must discern information from objects by tapping into their psychic auras, recalling the echoes of conversations, tracing hidden paths and, most importantly, interacting with the environment through an alternate reality. Here, Marianne is presented almost as a negative version of her normal self, with bright white hair.
Unlike many other games that have employed the alternative reality trope – and they are far too numerous examples to mention here – The Medium offers the potential to see and move around both versions simultaneously, splitting the screen vertically or horizontally depending on the scene. This effect isn’t constant throughout the game but is embedded into a good two thirds of the playing time.
General exploration is carried out in the normal world, whilst you will also sometimes need to spirit walk in out of body experiences that only involve the alternative world. These sections are timed as your body eerily fades away the longer you remain out of contact with your physical self. This results in some fairly familiar puzzles, but the world traversal effect helps to cover up the otherwise formulaic structure of finding items in one version that are necessary to progress in the other. This sense of the style being a smokescreen for some traditional gameplay continues throughout and may lead to some disappointment for players looking for greater innovation.
Whilst in the alternate world, you will be attacked by eerie clouds of moths that can swiftly kill you, as well as the larger and more threatening enemies such as The Maw (I’m not going to spoil any of this aspect though). To defend yourself you must find sources of energy which Marianne’s alternate version can use to form barriers or to power up mechanisms that are locked in the normal realm. Again this mechanic boils down to something surprisingly familiar, but I was taken in enough by the overall setting and narrative to forgive such gameplay. While very different in terms of moment to moment action, the role of wider world building and atmosphere reminded me of Remedy’s Control.
As you would hope of a game looking to justify its Xbox Series X|S exclusivity, the graphics of The Medium are mostly excellent. The visual design, both of the rundown Polish buildings and the shadowy other realm, are superb, with the latter in particular having a look and feel that manages to both show its influences from the aforementioned Silent Hill (and Stranger Things) whilst also having a feel all of its own. I often found myself stopping to admire the strange decaying environments, with some having a weird sense of beauty. Facial design and motion capture are effective, but the running animation of the central character feels oddly stilted and dated, almost as if it’s a deliberate nod to the likes of Silent Hill.
The contrast between environments enabled by the dual perspectives is hugely effective, helping to draw attention to details that might otherwise be overlooked, however that effect has come with a cost to game performance. Reviewing on a PC with a Ryzen 3600 and RTX 2060, I was between the recommended specs for 1080p30 and 1440p30 at High settings. While that’s lower than my PC can typically produce in other games (with a single perspective, it must be said), it’s exactly what I saw. You can forget about ray tracing at this level, but it’s fair to say that an SSD feels almost essential, playing from a regular HDD dropping performance down to the mid-20s. Of course, you can lower settings to Medium (ha!), which helps and doesn’t impact image quality too heavily.
The music is great throughout the game, and whilst much of it is more about atmosphere than memorable tunes, the standout songs featuring McGlynn’s haunting vocals (and a hidden one seeing Baker duet with her) are spine tingling in their emotional and narrative effects. Having played many horror games with bad voiceovers, the quality of the acting here is particularly welcome, with Baker in particular carrying off a demonic performance that is unlike anything I have heard from him before.