A medium of great ideas and poor execution…
As a prolific love letter to the psychological and survival horror tendencies that fostered a renowned genre and platform, The Medium boasts an impressive layer of creativity and complex ingenuity with its harmonization of its atmospheric and gameplay components. Bloober Team’s latest in their repertoire of terror is oozing with an unsettling aura of palpable fear and undoubtedly their most ambitious title yet. With an unconventional narrative structure that is ripe with tantalizing mystery and a unique mechanic that evokes nuanced innovation from both a visual and gameplay perspective, The Medium is encased with such brilliant ideas and provocative potential. Despite its high level prospective and creative promise, The Medium is notably muddled, inconsistent, and disappointingly tedious. From notable technical issues to a lack in diverse and engaging gameplay mechanics, The Medium’s level of provocation and player input leaves much to be desired, creating a surprisingly mundane experience out of what is supposed to be an unsettling aura of evocative fear and tension. On top of the poorly rendered textures and awfully stiff character animations, character performances range from passably satisfactory to overtly awkward. Bloober Team have constructed such a promising vessel with illustrious intonation and noteworthy ingenuity and while majority of its ideas struggle stick their landing, The Medium’s incepted mystery is undeniably intriguing and its atmospheric sound design and imaginative environments set a remarkable tone. Its centralized gameplay pays homage to the simulated horrors of earlier Silent Hill and Resident Evil titles and specific tonal shifts in the narrative are undeniably captivating. However, The Medium is ultimately a bag of amazing ideas with unfortunate execution. What is supposed to be an engaging thriller of unfathomable horror and palpable tension is rendered to apathetic displays of monotony and frustration. The Medium is not inherently bad, but it could be so much better.
Despite its disappointments and shortcomings, The Medium’s presentation quality is a notable highlight – from its atmospherically rich environments, captivating story, technical prowess, and haunting sound design, there are a number of impressive elements that The Medium simply gets right. In Bloober Team’s latest, you unsurprisingly play as a spirit medium, Marianne, who is whisked away on an investigative mystery to uncover her fractured past. While on the surface, it may seem rudimentary but The Medium’s narrative and driving sense of mystery is one of its strongest elements and its course of events are told in such an unconventional yet alluring manner. As Marianne, you wonder throughout the dilapidated halls of an abandoned Polish resort, years after an alleged massacre. Throughout the perplexing journey, you uncover fragments of the narrative and the overarching scenario, with each tantalizing breadcrumb providing further insight and understand, while complimenting its core mystery and sense of unknown. As Marianne, you have the ability to simultaneously exist and interact with both the material and spiritual world, with minor displays of cause and effect for each. Not only are the two mirrored realms atmospherically juxtaposed, but certain entities, landmarks, and interactive abilities solely exist in the one realm or the other. Marianne is lured to the atmospherically eerie Niwa Resort by a mysterious person only known as Thomas who has insight on the notable gaps in her memory. On top of the horrifically grotesque environment of the spirit world, a monstrous entity roams the decrepit realm in a bloodthirsty lust and instills an immaculate aura of fear in its inaugural reveal. Complimented with demented sound design and a harrowing character performance, The Medium’s malevolent Maw is disturbingly constructed and evokes a pristine sense of peril and impetuous horror. Specific narrative twists and plot reveals are absurdly intriguing, adding a remarkable layer of unpredictable insight to the established mystery while further developing a new wave of uncertainty and intrigue. At times, the narrative’s pacing is a rather slow and sluggish but the aforementioned tonal shifts undoubtedly make up for any semblance of banality. Further accentuating the novelty and ingenuity of its dual worlds, The Medium renders both material and spiritual realms simultaneously, which is an undeniably impressive technical achievement. While performance tends to dip during these ambitious segments, given the heavy process of rendering two interactive environments and having them reciprocate in tandem, its innovative and competent execution overthrows its minor technicalities. However, since majority of its assets are focused on satisfactorily rendering two very different environments in equilibrium, its level of detail and overall graphical fidelity is slightly muddled. Its geometric lighting is serviceable and facial animations are adequate, but The Medium ultimately lacks a pristine level of visual quality and technical detail. The quality of its character performances share the same level of trepidation as its graphical component, with hints of impressionable value discoverable throughout. Granted, majority of its voice acting is overly dramatic and fails generate any emotive value. The Medium’s complimentary auditory element is significantly better and held to a higher standard in comparison to its aforementioned voice acting. The Medium’s brilliant sound design echoes a harrowing provocation of unsettling tension and residual fear, ultimately setting the foundation for its established tones of psychological horror. From the demented groans of the grotesque Maw to the unsettling orchestral harmonies of daunting whimsicality, good sound design and auditory structure is imperative for the horror genre and The Medium’s audio design is inarguably its best element.
Paying homage to the horror staples of yesteryear, The Medium sports a fixed camera and modernized tank controls. While the archaic and retro style of control is deliberate and may frustrate some players, the adopted notion of tank controls has never bothered me in any capacity. The ironic lack of control they provide creates a far more frightening and engaging experience that compliments the thematic tones of fear and terror. A developed sense of impending doom whilst enemies trail towards you and the general lack of control creates such a tense and uncomfortable dynamic that truly punctuates the success of the horror genre. The problem with The Medium is that it lacks a prominent sense of confrontation. Aside from the Maw, which you encounter only a handful of times, there is rarely a sense of impending doom or survival. Despite its harrowing and intimidating stature, transient encounters with the Maw are laughably dismissive and lack a formidable sense of challenge. Evading its sight and stealthily progressing to the next safe area is an insulting joke. With this absence of survivability and confrontation, The Medium solely relies on its atmosphere and psychological horrors to convey a semblance of fear. While this results in a far more thought-provoking transference of trepidation and further accentuates its tantalizing mystery, The Medium ends up being an experience that is far more engaging and fun to observe than to play. The Medium heavily relies on puzzle implementation to provide a sense of player agency and interactive engagement, none of which is intricately constructed or leaves a lasting impression. There are some instances where Marianne can have an out of body experience – where she is able to move freely in the spirit realm without the limitations of the material world, allowing you to retrieve an item of interest or energy that will help you advance further in the material world. These lite cause and effect puzzles are few and far between and not particularly challenging but are still undeniably engaging and enjoyable, providing a variable moment of desperate interaction. The Medium also has a notable lack in quality jump scares, with only one provocative instance evoking a panicked and frightening reaction from me. Despite the clear homage to Resident Evil’s original camera orientation, its notable inventory management system, and the abundance of item collecting, The Medium excludes its inspirations pristine sense of exploration and interaction. The Medium is primarily linear without a moment to stray off the beaten path. There are plenty of deliberately placed objects to interact with in the orchestrated room; these objects correspond with past events and provide vignettes and further insight to the encompassing characters and their significance in the overarching narrative. These vignettes paint a slightly more comprehensive picture and slowly unravel the mystery in real time. While interacting with these objects feels more obligatory given their conspicuous and abundant nature and they lack an empowering sense of discovery and reward, the collectible vignettes provide an added layer of personality to the established storytelling and provide welcome moments of levity and calmness. In the spirit world, Marianne also has supernatural abilities that are primarily light and energy based. These abilities can only be performed once Marianne has absorbed energy from a spirit well. These spirit abilities are generally tied to progression and problem solving; simply circumventing the environment and locating a spirit well is a puzzle in and of itself. From creating a spirit shield to protect yourself from a swarm of deadly moths to charging power generators with your spirit blast, spirit abilities simply allow you to proceed further and act as a conduit for minute problem solving. The Medium also crashed on me a couple of times, primarily during its final cutscene. This was notably frustrating due to the fact that the checkpoint was placed before a cinematic walking segment that sets a dramatic and conclusive tone. This is then followed by probably the lengthiest cutscene in the game. However, the game crashed on me multiple times during this scene and I would have to repeat the same walking segment over and over again until it eventually lost its thematic lustre and became infuriatingly banal.
The Medium is an intriguing piece of entertainment from an atmospheric and presentation standpoint but is notably frustrating and rather tedious to play. Its established tones are horrifically entrancing and atmospherically palpable, crafting a remarkable sensation of residual terror and tantalizing mystery. The notable absence and lack of imminent danger and inevitable peril drastically reduces all forms of tension that were meticulously constructed from its impressive world-building and idiosyncratic environment design. With a bevy of puzzles that seldom require an ounce of critical thinking, heavily scripted walking segments that encapsulate the essence of tedium, and laughably braininess moments of confrontation that stray from the intended element of perpetual fear, The Medium’s gameplay components lack the same level of ingenuity and creativity exemplified with its respective presentation elements. All of this further cements the narrative that The Medium is a far more alluring piece of observation than a form of interaction. The retro-style camera orientation and archaic tank controls are rarely the burden of The Medium’s gameplay experience – they act as a delightful nostalgia trip more than anything, no harm no foul. While its level of graphical fidelity and displays of textured detail are underwhelming to say the least, its ambitious implementation of dual environment rendering and simultaneous player interaction undoubtedly makes up for its technical compromises. From an engrossing narrative with a handful of unpredictable twists and turns, its brilliantly crafted sound design that embodies a profound sense of demented horror, and its idiosyncratic environment design that is equally provocative as it is grotesque, The Medium has the necessary auditory flair and visual creativity required to construct a brilliant horror centerpiece. Unfortunately, The Medium does not live up to its best ideas and struggles to find a cohesive balance between meaningful gameplay and immersive storytelling, resulting in such a jarring and bipolar experience. It is oozing with such tantalizing potential and a formidable foundation, but The Medium is simply not fun to play. Certain elements of novelty and creative ingenuity quickly run thin and inevitably lose their lustre, with The Medium being a prime example of poor execution and unpolished substance.