Before we begin I need to make a confession. When I first saw the wallpaper art for The Medium, I thought it was going to be a CGI anime game with one of those silver-haired anime boy protagonists… Y’know he was going to be one of those really “I am 13 and this is deep” characters whose primary character traits was being grimdark and edgy and goes around brooding in a way that all the girls like.
So, APPARENTLY, neither is the game anime in style, nor is the main character a brooding, emo male. She does, sometimes, have white hair though. So somewhere in the range of 5% of my initial impressions were correct.
The Medium is the latest excursion by Bloober Team, whose previous outings include Layers of Fear, Blair Witch and Observer. And I remember being at least somewhat curious and interested in a few of these around release, as I tend to quite enjoy psychological horrors, but then haven’t played any because I got the impression most of them have not been particularly great. If reviews are to be believed they are mostly mediocre and have a tendency to become not much more than spoopy walking simulators (the Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs problem).
So clearly, The Medium is not a big departure for Bloober Team given that it fits both of those descriptors. In The Medium you play as Marianne, a young woman in post-Communism, turn-of-the-Millennium Poland. Her adoptive father has just died and she is called out to the abandoned hotel resort of Niwa to investigate the source of the supernatural events occurring there and also discover the truth of her own past alongside it. Marianne has been born with supernatural ability to dip in and out of limbo/hell/the other side (whatever you want to call it). It is an ability she uses to help troubled souls pass on but at the start has limited control over when she actually transfers between reality and… Let’s call it “limbo” for convenience.
Playing as Marianne you wander around the Soviet-era architecture, looking into clues of the massacre which happened there, and trying to deal with the remnants of the troubled souls that involved in it. When switching to looking around limbo, Marianne actually exists in both reality and the other side simultaneously, with limbo being a sort of twisted mirror of reality. So, you play a split screen version of Marianne checking out both areas at once.
It’s actually a very neat concept on its own and has some very effective moments. Existing in both worlds simultaneously is just relatively unique as things go and it’s pretty cool to go around solving puzzles by interacting with objects on one side which makes something change on the other. It’s also particularly cool in cut-scenes where Marianne will begin interacting with ghosts and you are shown her in reality just standing there talking at the air or to an empty chair. The two scenes overlap really nicely and create a sense of eeriness and sort of drives home the other-worldly nature of her powers.
The game also uses a 3rd-person fixed-camera perspective, which is super bloody effective. It constantly gives you the impression of Marianne being watched by some third party, shadowing her footsteps and waiting for the right moment to strike. Supposedly this takes inspiration from the old-school Silent Hill games (which I have never played unfortunately), and it definitely works here.
The setting itself is also pretty cool. Spooky forests are obviously a bit old hat, but the dilapidated Soviet architecture actually tends to be pretty creepy in reality anyway (all that Communism gives me the heebie-jeebies), so throwing Marianne in there works particularly well. It just gives you the vibes of things like Chenobyl and oppression. Limbo meanwhile is a bit more of the traditional corrupted and grim hellscape, fleshy walls and floors and twisted agonised souls of the damned built into the fabric of the world. Y’know, the usual?
This latter part actually becomes a bit of a problem in terms of what the game is trying to do as well. Smarter men than me have pointed out that horror relies heavily on mystery to work properly and because Marianne spends so much time transferring back and forth between reality and limbo, the hellscape loses its sense of mystery and therefore any fear associated with it. It simply becomes a new facet of reality, something she has to deal with and not a horrifying barrier to overcome.
Actually, I may as well drop the bomb that for all the game does right, The Medium is quite simply not scary. There are a few tense moments here and there that had the old heartrate pick up slightly, and a few of the monsters have the potential for being pretty terrifying, but other than maybe a single jump-scare in the early portion of the game I don’t recall being actually properly scared at any point.
The game also busts its load with its primary monster very early on, unable to help itself it shows off the baddie in all its splendour and then ever after that it never really seems to be that dangerous. In fact there only seemed to be a very few instances where it could actually even catch you at all.
Alongside the way the “scary” stuff very quickly just becomes normality, the big contributor to the absence of fear is Marianne herself. From the very start Marianne is obviously bothered and distressed by her medium powers, but that stems from a lack of control over when she can use them rather than any issues with actually traversing limbo. If anything, she seems perfectly at ease and even in command while investigating what is clearly supposed to be a terrifying other world. This translates itself to making the player experience the exact same emotions. Marianne’s confidence with her powers and in dealing with departed spirits removes any sense of fear associated with it.
If anything in fact, when actually sending souls on their way, she seems sympathetic, empathetic and somewhat melancholy. She treats the spirits as things to pity rather than be afraid of, and again that makes it rather hard to be scared of them. She also apparently has a very easy way of dealing with them, in a sense even forcing the spirits to move on, and actually there are a few moments in the game where giant and seemingly terrifying spirits are built up over a few long sequences to being truly monstrous, only for Marianne to subsequently exorcise them seemingly without effort in a cutscene. It, once again, just makes it seem very clear that Marianne is in control here and limbo really isn’t something to fear.
Therefore, The Medium fails at one of its central and most important aims. I will say, that despite this, it’s a very atmospheric game and actually was very good at immersing me into the story and plot. The only thing is that it never really succeeds in making the jump from “eerie” to “scary”.
I do think there was some potential here for the game. Despite the fact that it never succeeded in being scary, I actually really liked the concept of a medium traversing old ruins, hearing the stories of long-dead villains and monsters and then allowing them and their victims to find peace. It’s actually quite a neat concept and made for a pretty engaging story. That same sympathy that Marianne displays with the dead actually made her also a quite interesting character, someone who suffered the norms of everyday life but was able to give peace to the dead. It’s just something I would’ve liked to see more of and hoped they might have leant a little more heavily on.
It does also deal with some pretty heavy subject matter, not limited to murder it also includes child-abuse, and it does so in what felt like a “respectful” (for want of a better word) manner rather than just being gratuitously graphic and horrible. Marianne also investigates the motivations of the perpetrators of these crimes and while being critical of them she still seems to treat the monsters as something to be somewhat pitied, which again was quite an interesting take.
Beyond a few monster sequences the game has very few actual mechanics to speak of. It has that familiar walking-simulator, point-and-click puzzle mechanic where you find an obstacle, walk around, find an item, use item on obstacle and then proceed. Sometimes having to jump in and out of limbo to open new routes and traverse blockages.
There is also the element of finding “echoes” which are what pass for audio recordings here: echoes of long-since passed conversations. Echoes and memories allow Marianne to get glimpses into the past and build up a more complete picture of the events of Niwa.
Occasionally I thought it might actually allow for greater focus on “puzzles” like where you have to discover the names of some spirits, required for letting them pass on, and do so from some old clues left lying around. In one instance I actually discovered the name of one of the spirits and worked it out myself. It wasn’t a particularly demanding discovery but I did manage on my own, which might have been neat. Unfortunately, the game refused to allow me to progress until I went back up to the clues I’d just looked at and clicked through them in a specific order (as the order I’d used previously was clearly wrong). This allowed Marianne to then go “jeez, I now know this guy’s name” and all sense of discovery was lost.
Again, it’s something of a missed trick in my mind. It feels like there was the potential to make this game go in a different direction from “spooky horror hotel” and instead do a sort of paranormal investigator type direction. If one could have incorporated puzzle elements from a game like Return of the Obra Dinn and there might have been a real winner here.
There was another element that instead of being missed out seemed to actually have been just left unfinished. When in limbo, Marianne has the opportunity to charge herself up with spectral power of some sort and can then use that power to charge up electrical supplies in the real world. However, she can also use that power to emit a blast which damages monsters and can create a shied around herself. It has the impression of being the very basics of a rudimentary combat system, but it is never used as such. In fact the whole aspect of her charging herself up with spectral power is used very infrequently across the whole game, and only very situationally. It was as if there had originally been some intention of doing much more with it, perhaps more of a ghost-busting theme, but it simply never came to fruition.
I also have to say that while I did enjoy the story and was fairly immersed in accompanying Marianne through her investigations, the end of the game was a final area that really disappointed me, which I will do my best to explain without spoilers. Following the final revelation and twist of the game (which I feel anyone could have seen coming) the solution to the haunting of Niwa is presented but it’s a solution Marianne wishes to reject. Her alternative however felt extremely bizarre and nonsensical, it was presented as this extremely emotional moment for Marianne but relied upon relationships that we had not been exposed to over the course of the game. Worse than that though is that instead then of showing the outcome (or better still, letting the player make a decision) the game ends on a massive cliffhanger, rather obviously baiting a sequel. And that’s just bloody disappointing.
I would say I still recommend giving The Medium a bash for the rock-solid atmosphere and intriguing story elements, but I do wish that the devs had tried to go in a different direction for the actual aims of the games rather than standard horror. That could have elevated the game because in terms of what it was trying to do, it failed and floundered at just about all of them.
· Smashing atmosphere and aesthetic which succeeds in drawing you into the game
· While arguably a bit bland, Marianne has the potential to be an interesting character (or at the very least is a good vessel to interrogate other, MORE interesting characters)
· Has all the building blocks of being an interesting game with puzzle and story elements integrating well
· Broadly well-written and engaging plot
· Is not scary and so fails at its primary objective
· More than once it ends a protracted encounter with a “terrifying” enemy with nothing more than a cut-scene, removing player involvement
· Despite the potential it feels like it misses the opportunity to capitalise on all the things it could have been instead trying to focus on being scary (which it fails to do)
· Feels like it holds your hand a little too tightly through “puzzle” sequences so removes the possibility of enjoying discovery on your own