The Medium Review: Strong atmospheric horrors can’t save outdated gameplay
Played On: PS5 (Original)
Indie arthouse horror is usually a term reserved for films, but Polish indie studio Bloober Team has been bringing that vision with the psychological horror experiences they’ve been delivering. Their work on Layers of Fear and Blair Witch helped make the studio a notable name in the horror community and one that carefully crafts some unique atmospheric horror. Their latest game, The Medium, looked to be their most ambitious game to date, but these ambitions don’t always work out.
Bloober Team is known for delivering great atmospheric horror experiences that immerse players into the creepy and unsettling environments they create, and The Medium continues that trend. Throughout your entire time traversing an abandoned workers’ resort named Niwa as a powerful medium named Marianne (voiced by Kelly Burke) who’s searching for the answers to the origins of her powers as well as a mysterious caller named Thomas (voiced by Graham Vick), there is chilling sense of isolation and dread that slowly consumes the experience. There are these subtle changes in the environment that occur that make you question reality, thrilling and sudden chase sequences that get your pulse racing, and grotesque creature designs that just creep you the hell out.
The Medium’s greatest atmospheric horrors come from its incredibly unique split-screen sequences where players will control Marianne in the real world and the spiritual world simultaneously. It’s genuinely creepy to see the stark contrast from the already dingy-looking real world and the ash-ridden spiritual world and it gives each area has another dark layer to it that adds to the overall atmosphere of the game. This split-screen elements don’t just improve The Medium’s atmosphere as it also adds a lot of great depth to the gameplay.
There’s something really cool about watching all your movements with the Marianne in the real world be reflected in the spiritual world and it’s great how this really adds more to the puzzle solving and exploration. Often times, players will find themselves unable to move forward in the real world and have to go completely in the spirit world for a short period of time to unlock a new path or find a special item. This helps create new kinds of engaging puzzles for players to solve and establishes a real connection between the two worlds.
It’s also great how cutscenes and chase sequences reflect the idea that Marianne can’t see things she sees in the spiritual world in the real world. There are times where Marianne will be talking to someone in the spiritual world during a cutscene, but if you look in the real world, she’s talking to no one. It’s such a creepy and weird visual that never loses its eeriness and its great that this is even reflected in the very thrilling chase and stealth sequences as players will have to run and hide from an enemy they can’t see but know is there.
Oddly enough though, playing The Medium on the PS5 also adds to The Medium’s atmosphere as the the Dualsense’s capabilities make this version the definitive way to play. The way the audio from Marianne having to tear through skin barriers comes through the Dualsense legitimately makes your skin crawl and the audio logs coming through the controller gives them a spiritual presence incredibly fitting for the game. There are also some good moments with the haptic feedback and enhanced vibration, but there are also times where using the Dualsense doesn’t come with the rich sense of satisfaction it should. The bolt cutters, for example, doesn’t come with the great big, satisfying snap that it should, and I wish there was more immersive elements to the powers that Marianne uses in the spirit world.
A lot of the gameplay elements are unfortunately wrapped in a survival horror structure that’s nostalgic, but at times for the wrong reasons. The Medium is a big departure from the first-person horror that Blooder Team is usually known for as it features a third person, fixed-camera perspective reminiscent of games like the first few Resident Evil games, Silent Hill, and plenty other old-school survival horror games. It’s a look that’s super nostalgic and works in the game’s focus on solving puzzles for progression and exploring to find items that open up new areas and more of the story.
However, it’s a choice that doesn’t come with enough modern updates and just embodies the issues of these kind of survival horror games. The movement is super clunky and it’s easy to find yourself fighting the controls just to make Marianne go in the direction you want. The slippery controls are only made more frustrating with the fixed-camera perspective and finding certain puzzle pieces and clues can be made unnecessarily tougher than they already are. Honestly, while some of the puzzles are satisfying, others can be infuriating with how the game doesn’t provide proper hints or direction. There are some puzzles that take way too much time and effort to solve and using Insight, which allows you to see hidden items in certain areas, is so unremarkable that it’s easy to forget about it even though the game wants you to use it in crucial times. It’s cool that Bloober Team evokes old-school horror vibes with The Medium, but they can’t bring it into the modern era creating this outdated experience.
It’s also a shame that The Medium’s story isn’t as compelling or interesting as some of its gameplay and stylistic hooks. I’m all for arthouse horror, but The Medium’s story is just a drag with how aimless and boring it can be. New information just doesn’t click in a way for the pieces to come together easily and the story is too abstract to easily enjoy. Most of the time, the story seems unclear and even when answers about Thomas’ connection to Marianne and the origins of her powers are revealed, they don’t feel worth the lengthy chapters or lack of connection to Marianne and her journey. Marianne, as a character, is just too plain and the noir mystery execution of her narrative distances yourself farther from being able to be engaged in her story. This story can also be a little too goofy at times as certain characters, like Sadness (voiced by Angli Wall), unnecessarily distract from the tense, dark environments and there are some weird dialogue deliveries that really take you out of the moment.
Even for its issues, The Medium shows that Bloober Team continues to be a rising force in the gaming world with the atmospheric horrors they provide and the ambition they show in creating unique gameplay concepts. Personally, I’m hoping those rumors about them possibly working on a Silent Hill game next are true because they’d be a good fit and don’t be surprised it Xbox picks them up sometime down the road given their cozying relationship. However, The Medium still shows that Bloober Team has a lot of kinks to still work out as their storytelling and gameplay mechanics are subpar.
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