The Medium - Review
By: Stephen Machuga
The Medium is a next-generation title from the Polish-based horror crafters over at Bloober Team. For such a silly name, they have a history of games like Layers of Fear and Observer that dabble into some dark territory; I’m not sure if the word “Bloober” doesn’t translate to something funny in Polish, but I’m starting to wonder if it doesn’t mean actually translate to “ritual murder”.
We start off as the main character, Marianne, and her hunting around the funeral home that her foster father ran until his recent death looking for clothes to dress him up for his own funeral. Within the first ten minutes of The Medium, I could already feel the sting of tears welling up in my eyes as Marianne is not only dealing with the death of her foster father, but we get to see Marianne’s special ability to look into another plane of existence where souls live in this weird hellscape. Within seconds of her helping her foster father “move on” from this hellscape, the phone rings at the funeral home, and a mysterious voice on the other end tells Marianne that he knows who she is and that she can shed some light on her mysterious abilities and past if she comes to the (wait for it) spooky deserted Polish vacation resort called Niwa where a mass murder happened in the 70s (it’s 1999, by the way).
And so off you run!
That’s about as far into any kind of story that I can get without really A) confusing you B) confusing me and C) spoiling anything. By the end of the ten or so hours it took for a single playthrough of The Medium, I really wanted to jump onto the internet and see “xXxHeadshot420xXx” and some kind of story breakdown. As are most games like this, I got the general gist of the story by the time it was over, but I felt that I’d missed flavorful bits here and there.
A minor complaint about The Medium’s story is that it, ironically, is set fully in Poland and around Poland's history. It’s a weird thing to complain about seeing as the team is IN Poland, so why not make what they know? As an American, I was able to pick up context clues about the state of Poland during the Second World War, the aftermath, and how the country was struggling with socialism. Oh, you’re getting a history lesson here, folks. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m just imagining Joe Sixpack pulling this game out of the wrapper for his shiny PS5 and trying to figure out what in the hell these folks are talking about. What in the hell is a “First Secretary”? Meat ration cards in the 70s? Secret police? Why do they keep calling the place “Niva” when it clearly reads “Niwa”?
So gameplay. The easiest (and laziest) comparison I can make is if you took a Resident Evil or Silent Hill game and took out all the gunplay, moving from area to area, looking for clues and items then solving rudimentary puzzles: “hey, I can’t get through this door, it’s got a padlock, well, I’d better look around this parking lot until I find a...well, there’s a key!”. The Medium is almost a dressed-up point-and-click adventure game. You control Marianne from third-person camera controls for the game, walking around the decrepit vacation destination/retirement community. As you’re searching, you have the ability to use Marianne’s “insight” ability, which allows her to highlight parts of the environment and look for further clues. A broken telephone inspected with her insight might allow Marianne to listen to a pertinent conversation that occurred on it.
The important gameplay and narrative device that stands The Medium out from the rest of the usual walking simulation/point-and-click adventure games is that Marianne exists in both the real world simultaneously in the hellscape plane that I discussed earlier. There are several points in the game where you have to control both versions of Marianne simultaneously, where the screen splits in half, with one side in the real world and the other side being in the hellscape. This could and should have felt amazing. However, it’s trivialized into a puzzle-solving mechanic: a locked door in the real world might be an open pathway for hellscape Marianne. Marianne’s other self is regularly used to allow real-world Marianne to progress, whether it's opening and unlocking doors that she can’t reach, or grabbing items that are inaccessible to her.
The other gameplay features that the Bloober Team use seems somewhat arbitrary, such as somewhat poorly implemented stealth sections where Marianne is being chased by denizens of the hellscape realm or having to use energy to create a shield to block incoming attacks from hellscape enemies. It almost feels like something the studio felt like they had to put in to make The Medium more gamelike. There’s not a lot of “game” to The Medium; you’re moving from environment to environment, learning about the history of the Niwa resort, its doomed residents, what happened there, and eventually, everything about Marianne and her family’s life. You’re not there to score sick 360 no-scope headshots; you’re there to investigate. Unfortunately, it can feel slow and plodding at points, and I definitely felt I was going through the motions at points. Come into a room, find the 2-3 shiny points, look at them, interact them with each other, move to the next room.
And holy hell, if I have to use a straight razor to slowly and painfully cut across a wall of flesh door in the hellscape one more time...
From the opening scenes, Bloober Team warns you that there are going to be sensitive subjects discussed and that there are trigger warnings in the game (though not exactly saying what they are exactly). When you do eventually figure out what they are trying to dance around...it’s understandable that they’re trying to protect the gamer, but they also don’t commit to the premise and really let loose either. What ends up happening is the gamer is able to infer what has occurred, and you’re supposed to use your mind’s eye to fill in the details, but the way the story is told...I’m trying not to spoil anything here, but it comes off as at the detriment of storytelling to water down the narrative to not hurt anyone’s feelings. Either tell your story or don’t.
There’s a part in The Medium halfway through the game where you get to see the story through another character’s eyes, which turns out to be some of the most interesting storytelling in the game. A spiritual medium is defined as an individual who has the ability to commune with spirits and communicate between the dead and the living, and it feels like a missed opportunity for Marianne to have really dug into the Niwa massacre victims or other characters backstories to “set them free” from their torment in the hellscape. However, the people you come across are little more than simple puzzles, a few lines of dialogue Marianne says sarcastically to herself, and are then quickly discarded.
I’m not sure I enjoyed my time with The Medium, and when the credits rolled, I was somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. I don’t know whether it was the Polish disconnect, the fact Marianne isn’t exactly the most likable or compelling character herself, the fact I had to really pay attention to keep up with the story, but I found myself really struggling to make it through to the end of The Medium. Even during the end sequence, I found myself scratching my head wishing someone could explain it to me. I mean, I get what I was being told, but how did that factor in to...rrgh. There’s even a part late game where Marianne sits down at a table with one of the characters and starts to tell the whole tale of what has happened up to that point, and the damn game fades to black, coming back in after she’s completed going over the story. When I realized she was going to go over the whole story, I took a sigh of relief, because I was starting to lose the thread...only to have it snatched from me when it faded out and back in like, “Okay, and any questions?”
The Medium is a story-based game where the main character and supporting cast didn’t make me care if they lived or died by the time the credits rolled. Bloober Team has put out some quality games before, but The Medium felt pretty flat to me. I’ll be interested in seeing other review scores on this one; I don’t think I’ll be alone here feeling like the game was a miss.