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Game Review: ‘The Medium’ offers something mysterious and rare

The rich world of The Medium offers horror and mystery in abundance. We dive into what makes it such a unique and rewarding experience.

The Medium is the latest offering from Polish video game developer Bloober Team. The acclaimed studio have developed a stellar reputation for creating story-driven games that rely on atmosphere, world building, and character development. Their enviable track record includes cult hits such as Observer and the Layers of Fear series, so basically it’s not hard to see why people have been waiting with bated breath to see what they can accomplish on next generation hardware.

Observer, originally released in 2017, demonstrated exactly what the studio is all about. A first-person detective game, Observer twisted its cyberpunk setting so hard that it morphed into an unforgettable piece of psychological horror. The clever story centred itself on a father’s quest to find his lost son. While the gameplay itself was rather straightforward, the setting and narrative allowed the creative team to ask meaningful questions regarding technology and identity that left a lasting mark.

It is this desire to tell an affecting story that distinguishes Bloober Team. However, it’s not the only area where The Medium excels.

When a well-laid plan meets stunning execution

The Medium is a love letter to the classic third-person horror games of the ’90s such as Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. Fittingly, the story begins with a mysterious phone call that urges Marianne, our main playable character, to meet them at an abandoned resort. As I am sure by now you know, something horrible has taken place at this resort; the result of which is that the spirit world has begun to bleed into our own.

To give away much more of the game’s plot would be a disservice to those who so lovingly crafted it, as well as those that wish to play it. However, rest assured that this tale of family, trauma, and grief will not only keep you guessing, but haunt you for some time afterwards. The story is genuinely affecting, even more so when you realise that the themes being explored are so closely related to the homeland of the game’s creators.

The primary conceit of the game is that you play as a medium. This allows the player to experience the past, present, and future of this haunting locale at the same time. While standard exposition techniques (hello flashbacks) are commonly used to facilitate this sort of trope, The Medium has a far more elegant solution.

The game allows you to experience different slices of reality at the same time via a split-screen mechanic. However, rather than allow this to become a gimmick, the developers have carefully incorporated this device into the fabric of the game. It takes on an important role in the narrative and an extremely innovative one in the gameplay.

The Medium split screen

What do you do in a world this weird?

While the suggestion and presence of past violence is an integral part of the game’s threatening atmosphere, it plays little role in the gameplay. Rather, solving puzzles and examining clues is how you will spend the majority of your time. This is where the split-screen mechanic really shines; you will have to utilise your connection to the spirit world to find solutions to problems that might exist in one world but not the other.

For example, a path might be blocked in a single reality and open in the other, or an important past event might be witnessed by winding back the clock. The developers constantly come up with new scenarios to explore this mechanic, which means that it never grows stale. It is truly innovative and the execution is regularly fascinating.

Honestly, the greatest compliment I can pay to this game is how far reaching I see the consequences of this development being; particularly in puzzle games.

The Medium screenshot

An unforgettable tone and atmosphere

While the split-screen card is what will initially cause a stir, it’s the art direction and music that makes the world of The Medium worth exploring in the first place. Bloober Team have been open about how much they were inspired by the surreal work of polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, and the influence his art has had on the development of The Medium cannot be overstated. His warped works of flailing limbs and jutting bones provide the perfect bedrock to build the haunting spirit world of the game. I was often left staggered by just how gorgeously grotesque The Medium was.

The music also plays a critical role in building tension, creating a dynamic push-pull relationship between the two intersecting worlds. Legendary Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka, of Silent Hill fame, soundtracks the spirit world with building static and stabbing synths. Conversely, Arkadiusz Reikowski provides the slightly more grounded work that colours the rest of the game.

The relationship and transitions between the two different styles is important to some of the most memorable moments in the game. An early scene that takes place in a hotel foyer immediately springs to mind. Twinkling synths, evoking the iconic soundtrack of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, announce that the descent into madness has already begun. A sense of dread fills the room and you wonder if you are alone – it’s the stuff that nightmares are made of.

The Medium screenshot

Should you take the plunge?

The Medium is a fantastic game that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish. The well-written story, empathetic characters, clever innovations, and unforgettable atmosphere combine to create an experience that is easy to recommend. However, this is not a gameplay-forward game. It is subtle and deliberate, the antithesis of an adrenaline-inducing challenge.

You don’t beat this game, you experience it. It should also be noted that while fully satisfying, The Medium is not a long game. The main story will take somewhere between 13-20 hours to complete, possibly less if you race through it. However, to do so would be entirely self-defeating. When something is this rich, it deserves to be savoured.

 

The Medium is out now on PC and Xbox Series X/S. Find out more here.