From Polish game developer Bloober Team of Blair Witch and Layers of Fear fame, comes The Medium – a third-person psychological horror adventure game about a medium, Marianne, who can traverse between the material and the spirit world.
The Medium is a short, heavily story-driven game which can be completed in less than 10 hours, although I felt the game can be made more concise as parts of the game felt unnecessarily draggy. Gameplay is mostly focused on puzzle solving in both worlds, and manipulating objects in one world can affect the other.
I stumbled upon The Medium by chance on the Xbox Series X since it is a newly released game that is offered free with the Xbox Game Pass.
What piqued my curiosity was the split-screen gameplay concept between the two worlds, and the irresistible psychological horror premise.
At the start of the game, we find Marianne in Krakow preparing to say her final goodbye to her adoptive father, Jack, who had passed on.
A mysterious phone call led her to a derelict and (of course) haunted government owned hotel, the Niwa Workers’ Resort. There, she finds out more about the tragic events that transpired, and also more about herself and her past.
No spoilers here, but the story is intriguing and deeply personal to the characters, with horror depicted not just with superficial scares and fearsome monsters but also psychologically for the characters as well, which I thought is quite brilliant. I also find the game’s references to some events in Polish history quite refreshing.
The Medium is rated “Mature”, and rightly so with elements of supernatural, violence and abuse that can be disturbing, so it’s best not to let young children play it.
It is not as scary as, say, The Last of Us or Silent Hill where horrifying images linger in your subconscious and manifest themselves into nightmares, but its idea of horror is deeper, more personal and is psychologically disturbing.
Since this is more of a story than a game, the gameplay, exploration and even camera perspectives are limited.
The game’s fixed camera perspective is reminiscent of old school survival horror games like the early Resident Evil and Clock Tower games, which can be disorienting and annoying especially when you are trying to escape from danger.
Running away from something can mean running towards you, the player. As you move to a new screen, you need to change the direction of your protagonist as well. In scary situations when Marianne is running away from danger, that’s easier said than done!
The Medium’s innovative gameplay uses a split screen for the times that Marianne can access both the material and spirit worlds, and manipulating objects in one world to solve puzzles in the other.
Since there are different things to be discovered in both worlds, you need to keep an eye on both sides of the screens to ensure that nothing is left out.
In terms of investigation, Marianne can also use her Insight skill to see, hear and sense things that are not visible in the material world, revealing more about what happened through listening to lingering echoes and seeing ghostly reconstructions.
This is useful in finding clues for solving puzzles and getting some hints on which objects can be interacted with.
Marianne’s inventory is extremely limited – most objects that are picked up tend to be used almost immediately, so the puzzles mostly involve objects interacting directly with the environment.
However, some objects will not appear until they are triggered by a new discovery or milestone, which means having to return to previously searched locations to check for new clues.
The game also features collectibles in the form of documents, postcards, drawings and creepy photos that shed more light about the events that transpired.
Marianne has no weapons to defend herself, so she can only use evasive tactics such as running away, hiding or using the environment to overcome dangerous situations. She does, however, have some special skills in the spirit world that she can use for puzzle solving and fending off threats.
For instance, Marianne can use Spirit Blast to power up certain mechanisms in the spirit world that can get it to work in the material world, and also a short-lived Spirit Shield to protect her against the deadly moths in the spirit world.
To use these abilities, Marianne needs to absorb energy from Spirit Wells. To add to more puzzle solving, Spirit Wells need to be charged by activating objects in the material world.
In the spirit world, Marianne can trigger an “out of body” experience that lets her traverse certain barriers that she is unable to cross in the material world.
There, she can access objects that can open up a way forward in the material world. For times when the split doesn’t happen, Marianne can also traverse the material and spirit world using mirrors.
The game is quite clever in making use of the two parallel worlds as a premise to solve puzzles, and is what makes this game outstanding.
But what fun is a horror game without a sense of desperation and urgency? Enter a demonic monster known as the Maw who will show up and hunt Marianne, and will instantly kill her if it manages to catch her.
This is when the fixed camera angle perspective proved to be most frustrating – I had Marianne run into corners and gotten her killed many times until I finally memorised the escape route by heart.
The Maw also behaves differently in both worlds, adding to the suspense of not being sure where it might pop up and how Marianne can escape from it.
I did find the pacing of the game rather problematic midway into the game, with some sequences feeling deliberately draggy.
Corridors can suddenly stretch on when the end is seemingly near. The path onwards is riddled with pointless obstacles that feel like time-wasters, and a forced slow walking pace all makes movement excruciatingly slow and cumbersome.
Living in a material world
Built on the Unreal engine, the Medium has stunning graphics in both actual gameplay and cutscenes, with detailed facial expressions and realistic lighting effects.
The design of the spirit world is a work of art, with organic designs inspired by bones, skin and flesh that are hauntingly beautiful and disturbing at the same time.
The soundstage is very immersive even though the game is pretty quiet most of the time, which makes even the softest sound particularly outstanding.
You can hear the dry fluttering of moths’ wings, the subtle sounds of leaves in a forest and eerie echoes in corridors. Adding to the tense atmosphere is the suspenseful musical score, and it’s no surprise that Akira Yamaoka, the composer for the Silent Hill games, is a co-composer for The Medium’s score.
Voice acting is top rated even though dialogue is quite limited, and Marianne does a lot of talking to herself.
The actor who plays Marianne does a really great job to make her a likeable character, and deeply authentic during the emotional scenes.
And, although completely unrecognisable to me, the fearsome and occasionally tragic Maw is voiced by Troy Baker of The Last of Us fame, who had voiced Joel Miller in both games.
For a truly immersive experience, the developers recommended the game to be played with headphones, but I am glad I stuck with my speakers since there are jump scares and suspenseful events aplenty, as expected in any horror game.
If you are in the mood for a short, interactive psychological horror story with great graphics, superb acting, as well as some puzzle solving, The Medium is well worth your time.
With its supernatural, horror and violent themes, it’s not suitable for young children but adults can definitely appreciate the mature themes.
The innovative dual world split screen gameplay is a clever premise for puzzle solving, and the eerie yet hauntingly beautiful spirit world design is a work of art.
I did find the middle portion of the game unnecessarily draggy, but perseverance will pay off with the game’s thrilling conclusion.
The Medium is available for PC on Steam at S$67.90 and S$72 on the Xbox Game Store – rather pricey for its rather short and limited replayability. But if you are subscribed to the Xbox Game Pass, you have no excuse not to play this game for free.