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The Medium Game Review

by Lisa Hayden
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In a dark sea of survival horror games that lean a bit too much into their scary elements, The Medium is a breath of chilly, atmospheric air. After spending the past few years subjecting myself to endless jumpscares from games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and action-horror games that were more action than horror, The Medium captivated me with its atmosphere.

Its old-school design, coupled with its eerie visuals delivered an experience that had no need for gimmicks to keep me engaged. Though The Medium isn’t a flawless game by any stretch, it stands as the perfect showcase for how a well-crafted disturbing world is all you need to make a good horror title

True to its title, The Medium has us following the footfalls of Marianne who has the ability to engage with the spirit world. The spin Bloober Team put onto Marianne’s medium powers is that she can see both the world of the living and the dead at the same time. Right off the bat, she narrates to us that all she’s ever known is death.

As a result, the world around her never treated her with kindness, labelling her as a freak. Her only guiding light was the one person to take her in, the owner of a funeral home called Jack.

The story kicks off with a grown-up Marianne preparing her guardian for his last farewell after his passing. As an undertaker herself, she has to make sure his suit is perfect with his favorite tie and clip. As a medium, she encounters Jack’s spirit in the world of the dead, where he’s still trying to do his job frantically looking for documents.

It’s here where we see Marianne take it upon herself to guide her deceased guardian’s spirit, reassuring him that everything is in order so he can peacefully cross over. It’s a fitting parallel that sets the tone for the rest of the game’s narrative.

Soon after, Marianne receives a strange phone call that promises all the answers she seeks about her life can be found in the Niwa Hotel. It’s there where the bulk of The Medium’s story takes place.

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An abandoned hotel where a massacre took place is a fittingly disturbing setting to explore. It’s entire design from top to bottom feels every bit as empty and isolating as you’d expect from highly atmospheric horror games.

I couldn’t help but get Silent Hill vibes from the first moment Marianne and I arrived at the Niwa resort. The muted palettes of the game’s world had me wondering what lurked around every corner. Even though this isn’t a jumpscare fest, I had a constant sensation that in this long-forgotten remnant of a building I was not alone.

And in some ways I wasn’t. As Niwa was ground zero of a massacre that claimed the lives of many, Marianne immediately has her medium abilities triggered, causing what she calls the Split. In this state, she’s able to see both the world of the living and that of the dead at the same time.

This state also acts as the game’s main mechanic. As players, we’re able to see both worlds in a split-screen view. On the left we see the world as we know it while on the right is the land of spirits.

Structurally, both planes of existence are the same but have stark contrasts in terms of color palette and textures. Even “spirit world” Marianne is different-looking from “living world” Marianne, with white hair and some spectral disfigurations on her left arm. Playing in a split view like this felt a bit jarring at first.

But as mechanics were introduced, the premise began to fall into place and make sense. There are certain actions you can perform in the spirit world that you can’t in the real one.

For instance, Marianne can collect energy from spirit fountains and use it to power up devices, such as elevators, that can then become operational in the living world. Certain routes that are blocked off in the real Niwa hotel can only be taken by having an Out of Body Experience in the spirit plane. This ability allows Marianne to leave her body and roam the spirit world for a limited time.

As you explore in this state, her ghost body begins to fade. Stay too long and it’s game over. The combination of these mechanics are heavily used in engaging puzzles that are genuinely challenging. These brain-benders typically involve using clues to find objects in either of the worlds and use them to open up pathways in the other.

I can only recall a couple of slightly frustrating puzzles where I had to back-and-forth a few times until I finally figured out there was a corridor somewhere that I hadn’t noticed due to the game’s camera angles.

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Even without the Split, Marianne can still experience bits and pieces of the spirit plane through her psychic senses. Certain objects of the musty Niwa hotel still hold fragments of energy from the people who interacted with them.

Marianne can lock onto these pieces of energy to hear echoes from the past. Telephones, for instance, play back parts of calls while abandoned shoes reveal the spine-chilling screams of people being murdered. Interacting with these small fragments slowly piece together the horrifying events that took place in the halls and corridors of Niwa.

Beyond this ability, Marianne can also focus to find other patches of spirit energy, such as footprints that can guide her path. This style of experiencing the world of The Medium lends itself particularly well to the game’s overall design.

Part of The Medium’s old school design is its use of fixed camera positioning, an aspect that I wouldn’t blame you if you found tedious. The primary downside is you may fail at first to see entrances and corridors like I did in the above mentioned puzzle.

The trade-off is expertly crafted scenes that truly make the game’s atmosphere as captivating as it is. In some instances, I felt I was back to playing the original PS1 Resident Evil. This feeling was further reinforced by the tank-like controls of The Medium, a favorite design choice of the early RE titles.

As frustrating as this may all sound on paper, they work to the game’s advantage. Because the game is a pure adventure title evocative of the point-and-click titles of yore with no real combat to speak of, you don’t have the stress of having to use the inflexible controls to fight any nasties.

At the same time, they act as an extra layer that raises the tension of the game which is where its real strengths lie.

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Though combat isn’t a part of the experience, there are moments where Marianne needs to run for her life. These sequences are truly tense as you need to make use of the game’s controls and gameplay mechanics to avoid hazards and keep yourself from being overrun.

One, in particular, reminded me of the FMV adventure Phantasmagoria where trying to survive by way of point-and-click mechanics felt properly tense. Beyond these sequences, you’ll also encounter other creatures in the spirit plane, such as the moths that you need to repel with an energy shield.

What truly makes The Medium a spine-tingling horror experience is its brilliant sound design. It’s in this aspect where Bloober Team really knocked it out of the park.

After booting up the game, it urges you to put on headphones and there’s a good reason for that. Everything that can make a sound, from Marianne’s footsteps to the creepy ambience of the spirit world, contributes to the sense of isolation the game wants you to feel.

Even after I’ve long finished the game, I still can’t get the sound of the spirit moths out of my head. This aspect is further elevated thanks to the masterful soundtrack composed by the legendary Akira Yamaoka of Silent Hill fame and Bloober’s very own Layers of Fear composer, Arkadiusz Reikowski.

What the duo has put together for The Medium is nothing short of masterful. While not designed to necessarily scare or startle, the score lands with planned imperfection that hits at the right moments to fully realize the eerie ambiance the game needs to keep you on your toes.

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The Medium isn’t without its flaws. My biggest gripe is about Marianne’s characterization. While we know her to be a competent and unreluctant spiritfarer who’s willing to dive head-first into the unknown of the Niwa Hotel, we never explore any other aspects of her character.

This lack of other dimensions of the character made Marianne feel like a one-note protagonist who’s been treated rather unfairly by her creators. Her motivations, as clearly established as they are, have no meat on their bones to give them substance.

There’s barely a flashback or part of her narration that discusses her life prior to the events of the game, something to give us a reason to root for her or fear for her safety. Although it takes away very little from the overall experience, I believe fleshing Marianne a bit more would have added more depth to the overarching story.

After all, we are experiencing it through her eyes.

The voice acting is also not The Medium’s strongest point. Marianne’s narration at times felt pretty dry and not in the ominous sense. This comes in direct contrast with the incredibly well-executed performance by Troy Baker who lends his pipes to the antagonist known as The Maw.

His garbled acting gives the creature the exact portrayal of something lurking in the dark, watching you around every corner. The rest of the characters that appear either aren’t given enough time to really show off what they can do or their delivery doesn’t quite measure up to the better-executed ones.

It almost feels like there was a distinct lack of direction so the voice actors didn’t quite know what to do with their lines.

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As a final nitpick, I was slightly disappointed by the lack of freedom to explore we’re given. While the game does have a few corridors you can turn into here and there, they all feel pretty canned and only allow just enough movement freedom to move about to complete puzzles.

There’s no way for you to really walk around the Niwa to explore its rotting nooks and crannies, save for a few rooms that hide some of the game’s collectibles. I express this more as a nitpick because The Medium plays and feels like a retro adventure game and those didn’t have much freedom of movement.

I couldn’t, though, help but feel like I wanted to explore more regions of the hotel.  

From start to finish, The Medium has been a highly atmospheric, tense experience that I just couldn’t put down. While not scary in a way that had me anticipating jumpscares or horrible entities, the game’s world and the elements that comprise it gave me a claustrophobic sensation that fully delivers the precariousness of my adventure.

The Niwa hotel is a genuinely spine-chilling place to walk through. Its vast emptiness in parallel with the hell-like imagery from the spirit plane compound the feeling that even though you’re meant to feel alone, the remnants of the events that transpired in its halls still lurk.

It’s a game that loves the way horror titles were made in times long past. For some, that can be a deal-breaker especially when you factor in the point-and-click nature of The Medium’s gameplay. For long-standing fans of the genre, though, this is a solid trip down memory lane that manages to stand with one leg firmly in the modern gaming era.

Its unnerving yet gorgeous visuals are stunning, enveloped by brilliant sound design and scoring. It all comes together to create an experience that’ll fill you with heaps of nervous curiosity.

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Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Horror adventure that feels like an evolution of point-and-click games
  • Engrossing atmosphere that keeps the tension high
  • Evocative use of sound design to support the split-reality mechanics
  • Medium-length story makes it an easy title to get through
  • Puzzles are engaging and challenging
  • A must-play for fans of the Silent Hill franchise

Cons

  • Fixed camera angles are a classic horror technique but not for everyone
  • Marianne feels one-dimensional as a character
  • Voice acting feels uneven, especially when compared to Baker’s superb performance
  • Not much freedom of exploration

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