If you would’ve gone back in time and told me that one of the first — if not the first — true exclusives for Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox Series S|X consoles was going to be a survival horror game, I wouldn’t have believed you. Although the genre still has its fans, and is thankfully still kicking, it’s not the draw it used to be and doesn’t get nearly as much attention. However, that ended up being the case, as Bloober Team’s The Medium may well be the first big exclusive for the Xbox Series. That is, unless you count Call of the Sea, and thought it was amazing. Either way, it doesn’t seem to have garnered the same amount of attention as this one has.
After years spent making smaller games, at least most of which didn’t gain much traction, Poland’s Bloober Team switched its focus to horror with 2016’s Layers of Fear, which chronicled a mad painter’s breakdown. They followed that middling but promising release up with Observer, their own take on the Blair Witch Project, Layers of Fear 2 (which wasn’t as interesting as its predecessor) and now The Medium. Unsurprisingly, the latter just so happens to be their biggest game yet, and perhaps their most talked about as well.
The Medium tells the story of a young woman named Marianne, who returns to her adopted father’s apartment to prepare for his funeral. While there — in that flat above his funeral parlor — she recounts her odd dream involving a man shooting a woman by a lake, then receives an odd phone call from someone named Thomas. Someone who just so happens to know about her special talents, which happen to involve both talking to the dead and walking within the spirit world.
Thomas’ words spark Marianne’s curiosity, causing her to leave for a rural property as soon as possible. However, the Niwa Workers’ Resort was never intended to be as desolate and forgotten as it has become. In fact, it was once touted as being a popular vacation spot. Now, however, it’s fallen into ruin and disrepair, and is home to more than a couple ghosts.
What, exactly, does Thomas know about Marianne? And how can she help him? Those are two things players will discover as they play through this approximately 8 hour long game.
From the beginning it’s evident that the Niwa Workers’ Resort hasn’t received any business in quite a while. The security gates are inoperable, and players must climb over a wall to get in. Then there’s the abandoned parking lot and its dirty veneer of leaves and other detritus. It’s a ghost town of another variety.
You’ve likely guessed that a lot of The Medium involves exploring the hotel and its grounds, which is very, very true. However, there’s more to it than that. You will spend a lot of time indoors, though, and will work your way through the dilapidated building in a unique way. You see, unlike other survival horror protagonists, Marianne is able to walk through two different realms at the same time. You can watch her in the real world, while also seeing what her spirit version sees and must deal with in the hellish underworld. Together, the two offer an interesting mechanic for puzzles, some of which are better and more challenging than others.
For the sake of honesty: Puzzles are generally my least favourite part of these types of games, and the same goes for Zelda. It’s one of the reasons why I almost always avoid the puzzle genre itself. Most of these were pretty good, though, and I didn’t get too stuck. There was one really neat one involving a clock and a secret passage, and a couple of others that stood out for positive reasons.
The general idea behind The Medium is that it’ll take both Mariannes to solve the puzzles within, and discover the secrets regarding the Niwa Workers’ Resort, not to mention those of Thomas himself. Thus, you’ll find yourself splitting control between the two when possible. It’s not as easy or as common as it sounds, though, because the split screen gameplay only pops up from time to time, and separating yourself from real world Marianne can lead to death. Pressing B to leave her body and explore the spirit world is possible, mind you, but if you stay apart for too long she’ll fade away and a game over screen will appear.
As is often the case in this type of experience, wherein two different versions of the same environment are available for exploration, one Marianne will see and use things that the other can’t. For instance, a door that’s closed in the real world may be missing in the spirit world, or a wall that’s blocking your way in the real world may be broken in the hellish underworld. Sometimes stairways will be more complete in one than the other, or different passageways will be available.
Oftentimes one will need to solve a basic puzzle in the real world to open up a spirit well in the underworld. Once that is done, spirit Marianne can drain the well of some of its power and use it to break a blockage. For instance, there may be something blocking and preventing an electrical panel from working, or something preventing her from proceeding. Said electrical panel will appear in both worlds, but will need to be addressed in one before it works in the other.
When the split screen visual isn’t available, one can and will still need to travel between worlds. This is handled through mirrors, and becomes important for solving puzzles and simply making one’s way through the man made environment. Either way you’ll do so slowly, because the characters move like they’re stuck in quicksand, even when they’re ‘running.’
Being that she’s a medium, our protagonist also has the ability to talk to ghosts, including former residents of the hotel. Some are creepier than others, and not all were nice people to begin with. Regardless, you’ll have to deal with them, their histories, their past conversations and their desires if you wish to see the end of the game. Don’t get the wrong impression, though: The Medium isn’t chock full of ghosts. It thankfully uses them sparingly, and has a lot of collectibles that help fill the story in. Things like newspapers, notes, pay phones, kids’ toys and more. You’ll learn things from some of them by holding a button to initiate insight, which allows Marianne to hear memories embedded in those items. Things like snippets of phone calls, the cries of scared children and the like. All that’s required is holding the button and turning the item around until you see a white tear in its plastic or fabric.
Insight is helpful outside of this, since it helps highlight things of note within the environment. Thus, it’s a good aide for those who wish to find all of the game’s collectibles, and is simply a massive asset when it comes to finding plot items. It also aids the player in seeing the monster, that being the Maw, who is impressively voiced by Troy Baker.
Part demon, part gargoyle and part dragon, the Maw is a creature who stalks you like Mr. X in Resident Evil 2, and who also cannot be killed like him. As such, one will need to crouch, hold their breath and use stealth to sneak by him, or simply run like hell. These aren’t the most fun segments of the game, but they’re fine. Then again forced stealth is rarely good.
The Maw is incredibly creepy, and can follow you between realms. While he’s visible in one, he’s not in the other, which makes things more difficult. Of course, it’s possible to use insight to see his outline, and it’s hard not to hear his thunderous footsteps. Be warned, though: Sometimes he’s very adept and hard to escape from, leading to a creepy one-hit kill. The artificial intelligence wasn’t as strong throughout the game, though.
There’s no combat to speak of in The Medium, which is perfectly fine. That said, you will need to defend yourself from time to time. As spirit Marianne it’s important to use her spirit shield to prevent moths from hurting her as she walks through clouds of them. Later on, you’ll also get the option to block and parry attacks from slithering creatures.
Story-wise, this is an interesting and thought provoking game, which isn’t always clear or non-confusing. Its story takes place years before our current date, and there are historical items that hearken back to World War II, in which Poland (the setting and home of its creators) was heavily involved. There’s also triggering topics like death, abuse and murder, and imagery that may bother the squeamish amongst us. It kept me interested from start to finish, and had me wanting to unravel its secrets.
I’ll be honest and open myself up here, as I feel it’s important. I lost someone close to me not that long ago, and I’ve always wished I could speak to them just one more time. There’s a certain segment in this game that brought that to mind and made me tear up a bit because of it. That particular part was so well done that it dug its nails into my grieving heart.
On the presentation front, Bloober Team’s latest is easily their best and most ambitious effort. Not only does it look quite good, but it does a good job of occasionally rendering two different worlds, with both offering nice lighting and effects. I recently read in a Wikipedia article that Bloober originally had the idea for this game back in 2012, but realized that it wouldn’t be possible to render both worlds at the same time on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U. For that reason they decided to wait, and here we are 9 years later.
I was impressed by how different yet similar the real world and the underworld looked, and found myself occasionally creeped out by the latter despite being a horror veteran. The severed arms reaching out of the ground, the pieces of skin, and the other creepy elements were very effective. Hell, there are times where spirit Marianna must cut through a patch of skin the size of a big door, using something akin to an X-acto knife. Needless to say, this game isn’t necessarily for the squeamish, though it’s not that scary overall. It does have some very creepy imagery and environments, though, not to mention a good amount of detail in both.
There were a few hitches during gameplay, but I didn’t experience any notable issues while playing this on Xbox Series S. Some textures took a bit to load in, especially when it came to notes and other items that I picked up, but it wasn’t a long wait or anything problematic. For the most part, this was a pretty flawless experience.
The sound is also very effective, and contains some great sound effects that create an excellent atmosphere. There weren’t a lot of jump scares, which is good, but the sound definitely did creep me out and startle me at times. Furthermore, the writing and voice acting are quite good, especially Troy Baker’s creepy performance. Akira Yamoaka’s score is also no slouch at all, and adds a lot to this game.
At the end of the day, The Medium is a no-brainer. At least that’s the case for anyone who happens to enjoy horror; specifically survival horror the likes of Resident Evil 2 and Silent Hill 2. While it’s not perfect, this is a very solid and impressive release from Bloober Team. In fact it’s easily their best, and by a large margin.
Don’t miss out on The Medium while it’s on Game Pass. That said, it’s worth picking up if you end up doing so due to limited console availability.
This review is based on the Xbox Series S version of the game, which we were provided with.
- An interesting and unique concept
- Some smart puzzles
- Interesting storyline and solid gameplay
- Gets a bit slow and tedious at times
- The odd hitch here and there
- The characters move VERY slowly, even while running