The Medium Review: What's Past is Prologue
In Bloober Team's latest in a long line of horror-adventure games, themes of trauma, childhood, and the shaping nature trauma has on childhood are everpresent. For the Polish team which seemingly loves to work with dark material, The Medium is certainly their most ambitious game yet — and probably their best too.
What came yesterday determines who we are today. It's true of The Medium's characters and the team that brought them to life in equal measure.
The Medium is of a piece with Bloober Team's past works, foregoing survival horror mechanics for something more like an effects-heavy haunted house attraction, but with more old-school style and an interesting central mechanic, it makes for an enjoyable horror story.
The Medium Review: What's Past is Prologue
The Medium stars Marianne, a former orphan, now an adult mourning the loss of her surrogate father Jack, who also employs her as an assistant at his funeral home. Marianne makes a great employee because she can commune with the dead, though not usually of her own free will. More often, she finds herself spiritually split into two, existing in her world and a clay-colored surreal otherworld at once. She won't always know why it's happening but answers like that make for the game's intriguing story.
To depict Marianne's nature, the game uses a unique Dual Reality presentation, where the screen will often split horizontally or vertically, with players controlling Marianne in both worlds at once, tweaking one world to alter the other.
This Dual Reality feature is touted as something only the new consoles such as Xbox Series X|S can do. I'll have to take the studio’s word for it because even on the Series X, the presentation falters occasionally, usually in the form of screen-tearing, something that was quite rare throughout except for one point deep into the game where it was common for a few minutes. Maybe on last-gen platforms this would have been much worse.
It hampers the moment and your mileage may vary anyway, but it's clear why the game was delayed and now, even as these issues aren't so invasive, they do remain present and sometimes distracting.
In its split-screen style, which is often but not always the way the game is played, The Medium cleverly highlights the differences between its two worlds. In the surreal world, Marianne may be talking to a child holding a toy ball, while in her world she is alone in a facility and something like the ball, but dirtier and torn, is floating there. For sections, it is like seeing a ghost, only Marianne, and thus the player, get to cross into that afterlife with the spirits.
In these moments, the puzzles shine.
Most of them in The Medium are well-designed in that they often brought me to the edge of needing some guidance, just before I'd solve them myself. It makes progress feel earned but never obstructed for long. Though much of the narrative explanation for this second reality is purposely shielded from the player, the puzzles themselves flow wonderfully and maintain consistent logic, avoiding any frustration as a result.
You'll be shown the basic how-to, but the game will regularly leave you with enough area to explore a number of routes before determining a solution, always keeping an answer within reach.
When you're not solving puzzles, you're likely running from well-designed monsters. In the game's best example, The Maw becomes Marianne's Big Bad, stalking her in different ways depending on where you're exploring. In Marianne's world, it's invisible but also sightless, chasing you based on sound, while in the surreal world, it can see you — but you can also see it.
Combined with a haunting performance by Troy Baker, who would be unrecognizable if it weren't for the credits, these Dual Reality sections featuring The Maw are some of the best in the game, but they're sadly few and far between.
Bloober Team's credentials as a horror studio were proven several games ago, but one long-lasting critique I've had of the team that remains true with The Medium is there aren't enough fail states in their games. So much of The Medium, like Layers of Fear and Observer before it, feels more akin to a haunted house attraction. If you can't suspend your disbelief and forget the actors can't touch you, it's hard to get scared walking those halls.
Similarly, the vast majority of The Medium's would-be scariest sections rely on cinematic escapes you're meant to beat on the first try. It's good for pacing, but it's bad for inciting a real sense of dread or horror. When The Maw does grab you, the kill screen runs a bit long too, which makes those few failures quite frustrating on their own.
Despite there being too few serious scares, The Medium still feels exciting and worth seeing to the end for two reasons above all else.
For one, it just looks and sounds really good. Set in the studio's homeland of Poland, almost entirely in and around a single building, the atmosphere is strong whether you're moving between worlds, exploring an abandoned pool room echoed with ghosts of the past, or running through a threatening outdoor labyrinth. It's all aided by a musical score carrying its own dual reality. Layers of Fear's Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka composed the music in tandem, giving the game the perfect pairing of the former's more electronic soundscape and the latter's strings and pianos of old.
Things like textures, lighting, and characters all look good to great too, especially when you consider the team is much smaller than most making games of this visual caliber. Running animations look rather stiff and even slow at times, but what makes all of these pieces come together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts is the game's fixed cameras.
Sometimes these are tucked into a corner like those in Resident Evil and sometimes they are wide-angle shots like those in The Shining. What they always are, no matter what, is fantastic looking. They imbue The Medium with an old-school survival horror flavor, even if the scares never reach the same heights.
These angles are more cinematic than problematic like they so often are in horror games, allowing the story to really leap out of every frame. There's no photo mode, but the game has a way of framing a scene so well, you'll be hitting the capture button often.
The other best asset to The Medium is one this studio routinely gets right, and that's story. A few hours into The Medium, I realized I wasn't going to find the next evolution of Bloober Team's horror games, instead accepting the more horror-adventure style they returned to once again. But what kept me invested through that early disappointment was the story. Shifting not just between two worlds, but multiple timelines, to tell its tale makes for an intangible but ultimately enjoyable story.
There's a lot The Medium doesn't quite explain, but rather than come away feeling cheated by a lack of answers, I feel it was in keeping with the world the story is set in. Wretched monsters preying on trauma, families torn apart by tragedy, and childhoods robbed by circumstance — as is always the case with this team's games, there is a heaviness to the story.
Though The Medium doesn't convincingly sell that sadness, it still delivers an early-aughts survival-horror weirdness I found more charming as the game went on.
The Medium Review — The Bottom Line
- A moody story well worth seeing through
- Filmic, stylish presentation
- Puzzles stump but never totally halt
- Dual composers make for an inspired mix of signature sounds
- Some visual glitches
- Too few fail states to be scary
- Colors within the studio's legacy lines
It maybe sounds like damning Bloober Team with faint praise to call this the studio's best game while still only giving it a 7, but to say nothing of the fact that a 7 still makes a worthwhile game, it's also simply true that The Medium does show tremendous signs of growth from the team, now on its fifth consecutive horror game.
Characters and story are stronger here than in anything this team has done yet, and the world is rich in detail and atmosphere, made all the better with a moody soundtrack.
All the successes The Medium offers come in areas the team has already shown a talent for, such as story, visuals, and mood. Where Bloober Team still needs to improve is in creating truly horrific moments. The Medium lacks those, but as a genre story, it's still well worth the chase through the real and surreal.
[Note: Bloober Team provided the copy of The Medium used for this review.]