“It all starts with a dead girl...” the words ring out, beckoning you to step in and unravel the mysteries behind The Medium.
In the past, Bloober Team have created incredible psychological horror experiences with games like Layers of Fear, and The Medium feels like a natural progression in their development style.
In the game, you follow Marianne, a medium who uses her powers to help her uncover the secrets of her past and information about the events that took place inside the abandoned Niwa Hotel.
Even though the game is on the shorter side, it doesn’t rush into anything. Rather than jump straight into Niwa, the game opens in Krakow, Poland on a rainy day, the camera panning past the town’s Grunwald Monument.
I loved that right from the beginning, you can feel touches of Polish inspiration sprinkled throughout the game, which makes sense given that Bloober Team is based out of Poland themselves.
While it’s true this isn’t the first time Bloober has referenced Poland in their games — having previously confirmed the building where Marianne lived with Jack is a real apartment building in Krakow, and the same building shown in the team’s previous title, Observer: System Redux — they seem to cut loose more in The Medium.
From picking up a can of cat food with Polish text “Kocie Łakocie” on it to the spirit world that you explore being inspired by the works of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński to hearing muzyka (music) like Dwa Słowa composed by Stanisław Niewiadomski — the Polish atmosphere is strong and meaningful.
Polish history also plays a part in the game's story in the backstory of characters like Richard, Henry, and Thomas.
There’s a saying that encourages writers to “write what you know” and I believe this extends to other forms of media outside of books as well, such as video games. Create what you know.
In creating The Medium, Bloober Team demonstrate how powerful correctly utilizing this method can be. Obviously, it’s not all references to Poland and Polish history that make the game what it is.
The characters themselves have been given weight and depth, they’re not totally perfect or imperfect. They’re balanced and believable.
Games can often fall into the trap of making their villains one-dimensional bad guys that feel dry and stale in contrast to the good guys. The ones you naturally root for, and end up caring more about.
In The Medium, the villains are as human as they are inhuman, and as important as Marianne herself.
Like Marianne, many are revealed to be suffering from demons of the past created through past trauma, which is a concept in and of itself that I think is relatable and easy to connect with.
We've all endured something that has hurt us in some way, and the impact of that pain is something that gets carried with us whether we want to carry it or not.
It also helps create differences between villains that may be background players, but are nevertheless important in the way they influence the story.
With all the threads you’re given to follow in connection to the plot, Bloober Team handles everything carefully, putting clues in place throughout the game. Some are in plain sight, like the one half of the butterfly necklace that Marianne wears.
Everything has meaning, even the little notes you pick up inside Niwa. It’s not the addition of collectibles for the sake of collectibles, they’re things that you actually want to find as you get deeper and deeper into the story.
It’s been a while since a game has captivated me like The Medium. To me, it's as close to a perfect as a horror game like this can get.
It really just resonated with me on a personal level, especially in parts that reference Polish history, like when you explore Richard and Henry's minds.
There are references to things like Solidarity and Poland under Communist rule that you don't often see mentioned in the context of a video game narrative.
Anyways, before I go over various points of The Medium in even greater detail, I want to give a quick overview of how I’ve broken up each segment.
If you’re more interested in certain subjects over others, you should be able to scroll down to the parts you want to read.
The rest of this review has been broken up into the following segments:
- Graphics and Gameplay
- Story and Length
If you scroll down to the very bottom of the page, you’ll find a summary of pros and cons along with the score I’ve given to the game based on my experiences with it.
The Medium Review | A Spiritual Journey
The game opens with two warnings, one in regards to seizures and the other in reference to sensitive themes and topics within the game’s story itself.
The main seizure risk that I spotted during my playthrough of The Medium is when Marianne jolts between the material and spirit world.
It doesn’t happen each and every time, but it can be jarring for a few seconds at certain points, especially during times of Marianne’s own personal turmoil.
There are some flashing of lights and quick jumps between shots during these jolts. There’s also camera shake, but you can turn this off within the game’s settings menu. As for sensitive topics, these are more pervasive.
Subjects of murder, childhood trauma, childhood abuse, and loss come up most often. There are no scenes of overt violence, almost all of it is implied to the point where you understand what’s being referenced and what happened but you don’t actually see it happen.
There are no difficulty options to choose from in The Medium, although clues for puzzles are relatively easy to find within the vicinity of the puzzle area.
The game is also forgiving if you mess up on something like photo development.
You can retry as often as needed until you get it right, and there’s no time limit to these puzzles. The only thing that you can fail at is outrunning The Maw by taking a wrong turn during a chase sequence, or by being detected by The Maw.
Some areas, it's hard to avoid The Maw as you have to memorize directions to run, or find the perfect spot to hide. This can feel frustrating at times, but with the way the game saves, you aren't forced to backtrack too far which is nice.
You essentially start out at the running sequence again, or the hide-and-seek section with The Maw and can use what you learned the first time to help you the second (or third) time around.
Note that you can’t manually save your progress in the game and create save points. You have to rely on autosaves to track your progress, with a moth appearing at the bottom right corner of the screen to let you know the game is autosaving.
The autosaves are fairly regular occurring as you move between different areas, complete puzzles, and finish story cutscenes.
Speaking of story cutscenes, to help you keep track better as some of the voiceover audio can be a little hard to hear (at least it was for me) subtitles are available with adjustable text size, added or no background, speaker color to differentiate who’s talking, and the option to make the font bold.
If you don’t want to use subtitles but need to make some audio adjustments, there are a number of options available including increasing/decreasing voiceover volume, SFX volume, and music volume along with three audio profile settings to choose from including: Cinematic, TV Speakers, and Headset.
The game notes that playing with a headset is recommended. An event autocompletion option is available for things like Echoes, and for using items like your handy dandy bolt cutters which you’ll use a number of times throughout the game.
If needed, you can rebind controls to help make gameplay more comfortable. You can also choose to either toggle or hold buttons for actions like holding your breath.
Graphics and Gameplay
The game runs smoothly, I didn’t encounter any bugs or glitches during my time with the game (although I was playing on Xbox Series X for this review).
The characters have been mo-capped well for cutscenes, though I will say there are moments when some of the walking animations feel a little stiff.
It’s most noticeable when you’re free to begin exploring at the beginning of the game as you search for Jack’s tie clip. The farther you progress in the game, the more natural the movement feels.
Visually, the game is beautiful with the material world and spirit world each sporting their own unique look. You’ll need to traverse both worlds as you make your way through Niwa.
In the material world, you’ll primarily be collecting items and using them to solve puzzles.
In the spirit world, you’ll be able to do things like use spirit energy to avoid being attacked by moths which sounds funny but in the game it’s actually quite horrific.
You can also collect energy from the spirit world and blast it out near power boxes to turn on power to areas in the material world.
If you’re stuck unable to access an area, there’s an out of body experience that lets you act almost like a ghost, walking through areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
It was most impressive to me towards the end of the game in the section where you need to clear flooded water.
Even though it wasn’t part of the puzzle, I had a lot of fun just doing the out of body experience and wandering around the underwater levels for the hell of it. It felt both eerie and peaceful at the same time.
The Dual Reality system is also a fascinating aspect of The Medium's gameplay experience and using it allows you to really step into Marianne's shoes. You're not just controlling her, you're seeing the world the way she sees it.
The buttons you use to interact with things are different in each world which helps set them apart aside from the art direction, and in general it’s nice to see the use of splitscreen return in a game in some capacity.
Nowadays, it feels like a rarity.
Having splitscreen be a part of telling a story rather than for use in a couch co-op multiplayer type of game is kind of brilliant, even though it can be hard to follow at times as you're solving puzzles.
Overall, I would really love to see more developers do what Bloober Team did with the Dual Reality system in The Medium in the future and hopefully expand on it and the ways in which it can be used.
Story and Length
The Medium is relatively short and self-contained. In a video from Bloober Team, they note the game is around 8 to 10 hours in length.
The length of time it’ll take you to complete the game will vary depending on how much you intend to explore in order to collect items, and how skilled you are at figuring out the game’s puzzles.
There’s not a lot of replayability unless you missed certain achievements, collectibles, or you simply want to review the story again which I can see being a thing seeing as how I did that myself.
The game is short enough where replaying it doesn’t feel like a chore, and there’s always room for new discoveries given the multiple layers of the story.
Avoiding spoilers as much as possible, here’s some of what you can expect from the story itself. The Medium centers around Marianne, a woman with a troubled past that she doesn’t quite remember.
As you play through The Medium, you get to learn more about Marianne as she learns about herself. All of the major revelations come as you explore in and around the abandoned Niwa Hotel which also has its own story in its construction and the tragedy that took place there.
Inside Niwa, you’ll encounter a spirit named Sadness who helps propel Marianne forward through the hotel. Sadness is Marianne’s main link in getting to the bottom of why she’s at Niwa (aside from Thomas), and having Sadness be an indirect, almost accidental guide at times is clever.
Sadness is a kind spirit, one you’re always happy — and sometimes relieved — to see. Unfortunately, there is another spirit lurking within the hotel. One that’s extremely dangerous.
This spirit is referred to as The Maw, and while The Maw isn’t a constant threat to you while you’re in Niwa, you will spend a good amount of time either running away from The Maw or trying to stealthily sneak past it and avoid detection.
The Maw wants to wear your skin, and for some reason The Maw wanting Marianne because her body will last while everyone else's rotted away reminded me of Stephen King's book Desperation.
In King's book, the main villain Tak has to abduct as many people as possible so he can continue wreaking havoc with a physical body.
As a spirit, he's not as dangerous. This seems to be true for The Maw as well. He's not dangerous outside of a human body to anyone other than mediums like Marianne.
In addition to The Maw, the hotel introduces other characters that may seem irrelevant at first, but the deeper you go, the more you realize that all of them are connected to one another.
Some, in ways that aren’t extremely important but are nevertheless interesting, and others that are crucial to Marianne’s own path of self-discovery.
Each character is a puzzle piece, with characters like Richard having an impact in The Maw's creation, and characters like Henry a role in the tragedy of what happened to Marianne as a child and what happened to Thomas.
The ending of the game is a major cliffhanger, which can seem like something of a letdown… at first. As the credits rolled, I sat and patiently waited to see if there would be a post-credits scene (kind of like a Marvel movie).
And to my delight, there is a post-credits scene. It’s short, but it seems to suggest there will be a sequel.
The idea of a follow-up to The Medium really helps transform the ending from frustrating to exciting as you think of all the ways the story could be continued on from that point forward, especially from the point of view of Thomas. I found his abilities to be really interesting in contrast with Marianne's.
I’m sad there’s no second game to immediately jump into right here and now, but the thought that it’s coming eventually (probably, nothing has been confirmed as of the time of this writing) makes me very happy.
And even if there’s no sequel, the story of The Medium is more than enough to satisfy fans of Bloober’s psychological horror style in the way it reveals the truth behind Marianne’s past history, and the horrific truth behind the existence of The Maw.
The story is the biggest puzzle in a game with smaller, easier puzzles and is one that's well worth taking the time to solve despite its complexity.
If you’ve ever played a Silent Hill game, you’ll immediately pick out Akira Yamaoka’s contributions to The Medium’s soundtrack. The first time I heard one of these tracks play, a huge smile crossed my face.
It brought me so many wonderful, nostalgic memories of the Silent Hill series. In a way, The Medium feels like a Silent Hill game itself, so the music, while familiar, doesn’t feel out of place. It blends in perfectly.
Akira Yamaoka wasn’t alone in bringing The Medium’s soundtrack to life as he worked alongside Arkadiusz Reikowski who composed music for other Bloober Team games like Layers of Fear and Blair Witch.
Reuniting with Akira Yamaoka on The Medium’s soundtrack is Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, who contributes some absolutely gorgeous vocals to songs like “Across The Shore” which, when it started to play in the game, actually gave me chills.
For the most part, the soundtrack is subtle in The Medium, helping set the tone for encounters with characters like Sadness or The Maw.
Some songs are separate from the aforementioned influences of Yamaoka and Reikowski, adding to story elements like the sheet of music at the piano.
In that moment, you’re greeted with the haunting melody of “Mazurek, Op. 68” by Chopin. There’s also the scene where you hear Dwa Słowa from Stanisław Niewiadomski as mentioned earlier in this review.
Neither are featured as strongly as the main soundtrack pieces composed for the game, but are welcome changes that help further separate The Medium’s soundtrack from other games like Silent Hill or Layers of Fear.
The soundtrack, to me, is another perfect part of an already perfect game, and I hope that even if you aren’t planning to play The Medium, you’ll at the very least give the soundtrack a listen. It’s definitely worth it.
- An intricate story that encourages you to keep going, explore, and pick up collectibles in order to gain additional insight into how all of the characters are connected with one another.
- Interesting characters from Marianne and Thomas, to Sadness and The Maw. I also loved how side characters like Richard and Henry weren’t just thrown into the mix to further the story, you actually got an opportunity to get to know them and their past trauma.
- Unique gameplay mechanics from the Dual Reality system, to puzzle solving, to running for your life from The Maw.
- Artful game direction and design. Scenes like ones for Richard in the maze, or exploring the house using mirrors, are all absolutely brilliant in how they reference things like Solidarity.
- A fitting soundtrack that adds to the atmosphere.
- In some ways, I wish there was more. I really didn’t want it to end where it ended, but I can understand the desire to leave things to be answered in a possible sequel, which seems to be the developer’s intent based on the game’s post-credits scene.
- Would have liked a little more backstory on some of the other people mentioned earlier in the game such as Jack, the ballerina, and the nurse.
- Perhaps additional notes to pick up that explain the story and setting in written format would have been helpful, not just notes from the perspective of each character.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.