It would be all too easy to compare Bloober Team’s The Medium to 2019’s Control; both games feature a strong female protagonist with otherworldly powers, a dark and atmospheric locale to explore, and an affinity for the color red. Where The Medium sets itself apart is by literally setting itself apart in two different worlds. With a unique hook involving the shift between the living and spirit world, The Medium does a solid job keeping you engaged until the credits roll.
Marianne, the main protagonist in The Medium is thrown between two worlds with her psychic gifts, providing a split-screen experience rendering both simultaneously that leaves you seeing double. The shifts between the dual worlds seamlessly split the screen in half (both horizontally and vertically depending on what was going on); requiring no downtime to continue adventuring around the Niwa Hotel and surrounding grounds. Similar to old school third-person horror games, The Medium relies heavily on a fixed camera angle, sometimes guiding your line of sight directly to the jump scare it has planned or showing off bits of artistically ghoulish flare (similar to Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor pulled off at the edges of the screen). Adding to the vibe is a relatively consistent soundtrack swelling at just the right times to really drive home the atmosphere the developers at Bloober Team were going for. Adding to the atmosphere, the lighting and small touches the team painstakingly created in the Niwa Hotel added subtle clues to what happened during the Niwa Massacre.
I played this game on an Xbox Series S and 4K television, which didn’t exactly provide the most ideal experience for viewing these two worlds. Similar to Control, there were more times than not when something discoverable or viewable took several seconds to load properly; evolving from a blurry message to something crisp and fully rendered. These hitches permeated the game’s two worlds throughout my entire playtime.
The soundtrack and sound mixing was solid -- when it worked. There were a few times throughout my playthrough where the music would begin to reach its peak, only to completely stop. Additionally, there were times where the voiceover was off a bit when seeing Marianne speak the same dialogue across her real-world version and spirit world version, which was a little off-putting. Throughout my roughly nine hours of play, I did experience a few crashes later in the game, which highlighted the length between autosaves and caused some slight backtracking.
The Medium is not a very long game, which I think does it a service. Similar to how the streaming world has adopted HBO’s model of fewer episodes and more concise storytelling, The Medium feels like the perfect length; paced just right and shifting perspectives enough to keep the player engaged throughout the entire story. Rather than forcing the player to explore the Niwa Hotel to death (get it?) over the course of a 20-hour playthrough, the short eight to 10 hours spend in Poland ensure you pick up all the loose ends and don’t drop any as you head to the perfectly executed, wholly ambiguous ending. The shift between the real world and spirit world adds a new layer to the play style of the game which, again, could’ve become cumbersome had the story dragged on too long. Unlike a Nintendo IP showing off the console’s new gimmick almost to excess (here’s looking at you, Super Mario Odyssey), the tightrope walk between both worlds didn’t seem forced or contrived, but a natural way to unravel the events leading up to the game’s main story.
Similar to Until Dawn’s few-and-far-between reveals of the Wendigo, The Medium does a strong job of showing off its main villain, the eerie, statuesque Maw without the tension fizzling out. For the most part, the story is a somber tale that touches on serious subject matter like child abuse, sexual assault, and the Holocaust. It’s a story that utilizes items you can interact with and a clever narrative to piece together some of the more gruesome points instead of exposition-dumping you every time you progress in the story.
As you progress through the game and more of the story unwinds, there are a few cliche moments that telegraph some of the twists and turns from the start, but the narrative does a strong job weaving together Marianne’s journey with what happened at the Niwa Hotel. Without spoiling too much, a specific perspective change adds some additional insight into the overall narrative. Like most horror movies and games, the final act and ending can really make or break a strong narrative. Marianne’s journey had many opportunities to misstep and careen into bad horror tropes as her story continued to develop. Luckily, The Medium delicately weaves the threads of impending doom into an ending that perfectly sums up the duality of the game and the uncertainty that lies between both worlds.
The Medium is a beautiful game with an atmospheric quality that reminds you of horror games from the PlayStation 3 era. Unfortunately, some of the gameplay mechanics feel stuck in the past, too. Marianne is able to run -- sometimes -- and it’s quite a slow jog. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to when she’s able to pick up the pace (technically), which made the game sometimes feel cumbersome. Additionally, the fixed camera angles caused me regularly to stutter around when the angle suddenly switched, which became frustrating the further into the game you went.
The puzzles placed throughout the main game were balanced in a way where you felt accomplished figuring them out from the first go-around, but not so easy that you were able to do them without much thought. There were some points where the back and forth to gather all the necessary parts could’ve been streamlined, but it didn’t detract from the overall experience. Switching between the real and spirit worlds was enjoyable for the most part, especially during the out of body experiences, though the shift in controls for opening doors or interacting with objects seemed an obtuse way to add additional differences between how both worlds played.
Similar to a solid limited series, The Medium provides a strong balance of story, variety, and character development without the need for superfluous exposition. The team behind The Medium clearly poured their hearts and passion into this game, providing a solid experience with a strong mixture of terror and emotional depth. Though the game has a few missteps from a gameplay and technical standpoint, The Medium is a great glimpse of what a next-generation game on the Xbox can be.
And that’s the Borderline Bottomline for The Medium.
Review Written by Nate Pressler