Bloober Team is one of the best developers of horror games on the market today. So my expectations going into playing their latest game, The Medium, were quite high.
The Medium was first shown off at the Xbox Games Showcase back in July 2020. I thought that it looked like one of the more interesting-looking games that was supposed to come out at the Xbox Series X launch. It lets you explore both the real world and the spirit world simultaneously.
You play as Marianne, a relatively young medium who grew up in communist Poland. The game starts shortly after your adoptive father dies. He just so happens to be a mortician, so you find yourself at his own funeral home.
It’s here where you have your first supernatural encounter and help a spirit cross to the other side. Shortly after this emotional experience, Marianne receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Thomas. He summons her to Niwa, an abandoned (and haunted) resort where you later learn was the site of a massacre.
Welcome to Niwa
As soon as you lay eyes on the structure, it’s instantly clear that Niwa is a foreboding place. It looks reminiscent of Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster with overgrowth and a feeling that the place is frozen in time. Although it is shrouded in fog, the resort is massive.
The setting feels a lot like a modern-day Silent Hill. That’s the general direction that the story takes as well, although it’s less out there than Konami’s franchise. Still, this is a game with out-of-body experiences, unseen monsters lurking about the hotel, and ghosts that wear masks.
Bloober Team is the studio behind games like Layers of Fear and Observer, so they have experience with this. The strongest suit of The Medium is the game’s environment and setting. Niwa is a character in the story as much as the Overlook Hotel is in The Shining. I’m willing to bet that there are more than a few Kubrick and King fans on the development team.
The controls are horrifically bad
If the story is a bit of a throwback to Stephen King’s famous novel, the controls are a throwback to the original Resident Evil. This game has tank-like controls where you control Marianne with the left analog stick. The camera angles are locked into place, so you have no independent control over them.
This sets up some very interesting shots. Indeed, the camera work is some of the best that you will find in a video game. However, it comes at the expense of smooth, unimpeded movement. Throughout much of the game, the awkward movement is more of an annoyance than a true setback.
But trust me on this. When you reach sections where you need to run from a monster only to have the controls foil your escape, it’s going to piss you off. Likewise, there were situations where I needed to grab something to obstruct the monster’s path only to see Marianne fumble about and button prompts fail to show up on time. It’s very frustrating when this happens.
It all ends in me
Aside from wandering around Niwa, you’ll use psychic powers to solve puzzles and help you to survive. Marianne has the ability to psychically clue her in on objects that may be hidden in an environment. This comes in handy since a big part of the game is finding and using various objects in the game world.
The objects and tools vary from bolt cutters to break locked chains to a knife that you use to literally cut skin that is blocking your path in the spirit world. Sometimes you just have to find an object to advance the story – like a mask that represents the soul of the ghosts in the game.
Much of the game has a split-screen view with both the real world and the spirit world. Your character’s movement is affected in both worlds, but you may see objects in the spirit world that you don’t see in the real world and vice versa. As a general rule, if something blocks you in the spirit world, it also blocks you in the spirit world.
However, there is an exception to this. Holding the B button initiates an out-of-body experience. This shifts the game’s attention to the spirit world, allowing you to go into areas that are blocked in the real world. Marianne can also collect energy, dispense said energy, and use the energy to form a psychic shield.
The flaws go beyond the poor controls
Unfortunately, The Medium commits some mortal sins beyond its janky, tank-like controls. It gets repetitive and boring after just a few hours. Just as the plot thickens, it meanders a bit until you just want it all to be over.
It took me about seven hours to beat, so it’s not a terribly long game. Even with the relatively short length though, it still feels like the developers milked some of the scenes a bit too long. Maybe they felt compelled to extend its length a bit to justify its price, but most people are going to be playing this on Xbox Game Pass anyway.
As someone who enjoys a good story-driven video game, it’s a shame that The Medium did not keep me engaged as much as I had hoped. The story starts to take a hit when you’re wandering around trying to figure out what to do next.
That’s not a credit to the puzzles, either, as they aren’t particularly clever. Some of them are as basic as following instructions scribbled on a sheet or filling in a simple jigsaw. Instead, the game has a habit of forcing you to go on fetch quests that have you going back and forth.
The Medium seemed like one of the more promising games coming to Xbox Series X. Visually, it makes pretty good use of the hardware, and the environments are stunning at times. Unfortunately, poor controls and seriously flawed gameplay design choices hold this back from being the instant classic that it could have been.