The Medium review

By Luke Albigés,
Whoever dreamed up the concept of stealth sections with an invisible enemy is clearly in dire need of a visit from an exorcist. That poor soul, twisted by whatever demonic entity currently controls them, saw fit to take one of the most maligned elements to ever penetrate mainstream gaming and, against all odds, find and implement one of few conceivable ways to make it even more tedious. Admittedly, The Medium has your back on this one to a degree, since protagonist Marianne is proficient in the spiritual and the occult, so can visualise this unseen threat when it gets close enough using her Insight ability. She can also hold her breath to avoid audibly alerting the assailant, but all this really means is that you have to hold two additional buttons in order to get the same awkward stealth experience you've suffered through in countless games before. Truth be told, it doesn't even come up all that often... so why would we lead with it? Well, while a lot of other aspects of The Medium show developer Bloober Team attempting to grow in different directions (to varying effect), the game is largely held back by the fact that the team seems incapable of letting go of tried-and-detested mechanics such as this. Nobody thought that the stealth bits in Observer were bad because they didn't get to hold down enough buttons. They were just plain bad.

the medium

Still, The Medium is hands-down Bloober Team's most ambitious title to date, so we shouldn't dwell on negatives, especially when the game gets so much right. This small team punches well above its weight in many regards, with some impressive visuals, great audio, a novel gameplay hook, and lots of neat ideas. The Medium's vaunted dual-reality gameplay is really quite clever, with the action divided up between real world, spirit world, and the two at once, where the action will shift to a split-screen mode to let you interact with both at the same time. Even though it employs a fixed camera system, this genuinely does feel like a generational leap — two distinct environments are being presented at once, with navigation shared between the two even when interactions are not.

Seeing Marianne gesture towards and converse with the unseen in the material realm can look a little goofy, but the other side of the screen is there to provide context by showing what is really going on, and that proves endlessly intriguing. You find your attention darting between the two realms during key scenes, and the same applies to gameplay sections as well. It can be hard to know which you should be focusing on, but that's just part of the game's charm and novelty. The way in which the twin screens shift in size and focus at key times is also interesting, somewhat reminiscent of A Way Out in its implementation but with more room to play around with the mechanic on account of being a single-player game. There's one sequence in particular that does an amazing job of highlighting both the similarities and the differences of these two dimensions by leaping between then in quick-fire fashion, and it's hard to imagine older hardware being able to pull this off in real time.

the medium

On that note, it bears mentioning that The Medium is a beautiful game... for the most part, anyway. Environments, from dense forests to otherworldly dreamscapes, are expertly realised, and it's fascinating to see the spirit world swerve between eldritch, infernal, spiritual, and arcane in a manner that always keeps you guessing. The team drew inspiration from Polish surrealist Zdzislaw Beksinski for the appearance of the spirit realm — pronounced tendrils, dead-eyed faces, and bleak imagery for days — and while this influence is plain to see in the earlier forays into that dimension, the manner in which the spirit world shifts in style in line with the characters involved allows it to feel like more than a simple homage. Characters typically look pretty good as well, although animations, especially facial, leave something to be desired. Here, it's not so much a case of Bloober biting off more than it can chew as biting off more than it could perhaps ever hope to consume. Cinematic narrative-led games such as this don't come easy, or cheap. Some clever concessions have been made (masks on phantom NPCs both increase their creepiness and remove the need for facial animation, just like how Detroit: Become Human weaponised its Uncanny Valley-ness by making a lot of its cast androids), but with gameplay relatively light and the story expected to carry the experience, every instance of dodgy animation runs the risk of shattering the immersion and ruining the rest of The Medium's hard work.

And work hard it does. Performances are generally pretty good, with Marianne herself narrating during moments of downtime and supporting (and opposing) characters also pulling their weight. Audio in general is one of The Medium's strong suits, and the game's recommendation that it should be played with headphones should be heeded. From the whispers of the deceased when Marianne gets close to something she can investigate to the roaring, snarling outbursts of the less friendly denizens of the spirit plane, just about every scene is lent a significant sense of unease thanks to this fantastic and affecting sound design. It doesn't hurt that the soundtrack is great as well, knowing when to calm and when to swell to best support the action. The tone and feel of the game already give off strong Silent Hill vibes, so getting the series' composer, Akira Yamaoka, on board for The Medium was a masterstroke, and his work is as good as ever — a perfect accompaniment to the spooky goings-on in and around the long-abandoned Niwa hotel.

the medium

That sense of unease isn't just created by the audio, of course. All elements of the game work in tandem to create a genuine and oppressive atmosphere, and this is arguably The Medium's greatest strength. The lack of a HUD is great for immersion — everything you need to know is cleverly presented visually on the character, from spirit Marianne's glowing arm indicating remaining energy (like Dead Space's health system) to the way her form crumbles and dissolves unnervingly as her control over straddling the two dimensions grows weak. The unsettling nature comes in many flavours, sometimes tense, sometimes chilling, and always utterly engaging. Every area is made that much more involving to explore, and there's often as much to learn about the place itself as there is regarding Marianne's business there.

Gameplay largely takes the form of point-and-click style puzzles (which often cleverly make you use both realities in solving them), and there are some really neat mechanics presented, such as blocked paths in one world needing to be circumvented via the other, or sending Marianne's spirit off for a brief out-of-body experience to explore places her physical form can't (and would probably never want to) go. As we say, The Medium is easily Bloober Team's most inventive and arguably even impressive release yet, but it's an experience that is so well imagined in so many aspects that it feels like it deserves better than the repeated shortcomings from the studio's previous efforts that once again crop up here.

the medium

In terms of achievements, it's an easy list. We were fairly thorough in our playthrough and grabbed 34 achievements (800G) inside of ten hours with minimal fuss. All we ended up missing were a handful of collectables and the achievement for completing a stealth section perfectly — that one either has issues or needs to be completed on a specific section as we definitely pulled that off several times, but there are unlocks for it tracked so at least it isn't completely broken. There's no chapter select option or anything like that, so you'll likely want to use a guide if you don't want to miss any of the collectables, although skipping cutscenes and blasting through a second playthrough to grab them would probably only take a couple of hours.

Summary

The Medium is an interesting and enjoyable game, but one let down by some awkward animations that constantly threaten to break the immersion created by an otherwise captivating game world, and those weak stealth sections that Bloober Team can't seem to leave behind. It's very much a one-and-done game — you can easily see everything it has to offer inside of ten hours, so the pricing might be a little questionable for both the quality and quantity of what you get here. Still, price won't be an issue for Game Pass subscribers, for whom The Medium is a unique yet flawed gem that we'd absolutely recommend checking out as part of the service.
7 / 10
The Medium
Ethics
Luke spent around ten hours asking The Medium to knock once for yes and twice for no, unlocking 34/39 achievements in the process. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Luke Albigés
Written by Luke Albigés
Hey, I'm Luke! I've been playing games since way back in the 8-bit days, and have spent the last 15+ years writing and talking about them professionally for anyone and everyone who would let me. Monster Hunter fanatic, wearer of many fine hats, and always up for a raid.