Life of the Party
The strangest thing about purchasing Microsoft’s latest behemoth, The Series X or smaller sibling, the Series S, is how much it doesn’t quite feel like a whole new generation of console. The interface is the same as the old console, the controller is near enough the same albeit with a few welcomed upgrades and there are no new “next-gen” games to speak of. Or are there?
Besides a few cross-generational titles with some rather superb graphical and lighting upgrades the only game that stands out as being a “new” title exclusive to the Series X|S is The Medium, a psychological survival horror from Polish developers Bloober Team, who in recent years have brought us Blair Witch and Layers of Fear 2, both in 2019, and Observer in 2017. These masters of horror have had our knee’s knocking for quite some time so what a great position for them to be in as the sole flag-bearer for a new generation. As a long-term survival horror fan and a slightly late to the party owner of a Series X, this reviewer couldn’t wait to turn out the lights and see what The Medium had to offer, but was this haunting mystery a true fright night or was it like the spirits from our local pub, watered down? Let’s take a look.
It all starts with a Phone Call
The Medium takes place in 1999 Poland and we take control of Marianne, a spirit-medium and no that doesn’t mean she drinks her cocktails with 50/50 measures, but she is haunted by a reoccurring dream about a young woman being murdered at a lake. To make matters worse, Marianne is in mourning for her recently deceased foster father when she receives a call from a mysterious man named Thomas who seems to be familiar with her abilities. Thomas offers to reveal to Marianne the source of her powers if she agrees to meet him at “Niwi Workers Resort” which in true survival horror fashion is abandoned and looks about as inviting as London’s East End.
Throwing caution to the wind, Marianne decides to head to the resort but shortly after she arrives, things take a turn for the sinister. The Resort is hiding dark secrets and its connection to death makes the bridge between the spirit world extremely strong. It is here where Marianne’s Medium abilities come into full flow as she must traverse both the land of the living and the dead to reveal the secrets of this disturbing place and the truth about herself.
Behind the Veil
The first thing that struck us when loading up The Medium was one of nostalgia, straight away we felt like we were stepping back a few generations to the hay day of Survival Horror. Fixed cameras and tank controls gave off some welcomed Silent Hill vibes. In fact, if we were to describe the overall feel of The Medium it would be a cross between Silent Hill 2 and Murdered: Soul Suspect, another horror-themed offering that was available at the beginning of the previous generation.
The Medium forgoes the minimalistic combat associated with the genre and instead focuses on more narrative-driven puzzle solving with a touch of hide and seek. The locations on offer are highly immersive and draw you in. As a Medium, Marianne can step into the spirit world and this is the main hook of the gameplay, the two worlds exist side by side with the spirit world appearing almost like a distorted reflection. At times you will be traversing both realms simultaneously which adds a great depth of imagery to the whole experience, witnessing the living world and the spirit world side by side is both haunting and alluring.
The story is very dark with sinister tones running throughout and this all adds to the narrative puzzles. Events from the real world will often leave impressions on the spirit world which need to be resolved or manipulated in order to progress. A pathway that may be blocked might be traversable in spirit form allowing Marianne’s spooky self to venture forth and find an alternative solution to her physical forms problem. By holding down B we were able to begin an out of body experience and explore the dark and foreboding spirit world freely through these sessions could only last for short periods at a time. Spirit energy can be obtained from certain objects and used to shield Marianne from hostile entities within the spirit realm or imbue devices with energy that would reactivate in the real world. Forget entering the Matrix this is more like entering a Cradle of Filth album cover.
The puzzles on hand were not major brain teasers and the whole experience of The Medium seemed to be one of taking our time to explore and gain insight into the story by finding clues and items that opened up the deeper elements of the story. Players who are not accustomed to puzzle-solving should have no real issues here as most areas are fairly contained and the game itself is quite linear so you won’t get lost or overburdened with complex mechanics. Most puzzles can be solved with a simple case of trial and error effort. Marianne is a likeable character who has plenty of inner monologues to flesh out her personality and opinions of the scenario unfolding around her which helps keeps things a bit lighter in the face of the macabre, though don’t become flippant enough as to undermine the story’s gritty edge. While these monologues or voiceovers are playing the game prevents you from interacting with anything else which can become a bit of a grind given the amount of collectable information on hand but we can understand the developers wanting the player to gain a deeper insight into the story.
A Beautiful Nightmare
Though we were not at first blown away by the experience as a next-gen outing, we were highly impressed with the design and concept and how smoothly it all came together. Simultaneously controlling two versions of Marianne in two beautifully rendered versions of the same world was fun and engaging, even more so considering this title was originally conceived for release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii back in 2012 but the technology was not up to scratch at the time. The old school fixed camera setting really helps this form of gameplay come to life and work well without feeling too over-complicated and the art direction itself is absolutely superb with the spirit world taking heavy influence from Polish artist, Zdzisław Beksiński. Seriously, google his work, it’s like every death metal album in the world had a child with the cenobites!
Production quality is to an impressive standard, although the facial animations may not be up there with some of the higher budget titles of the modern-day, the voice acting and sound design is right on the money. Everybody’s favourite go-to voice actor Troy Baker is here but the star of the show is Marianne herself played by Kelly Burke who’s dialogue and performance kept us coming back and even when the slower pace showed signs of becoming a slog. Long term Silent Hill fans will be excited to hear that famed composer for the town no one wants to visit, Akira Yamaoka is on duty and as always his music manages to delight and terrify in equal measures. Loading times were a bit lengthy and certain interactions with a particular entity could be frustrating due to lack of clear direction of what was expected but these things could be overlooked in favour of the immersive environments and great use of lighting effects.
The Medium is a well-conceived throwback to the olden days of Survival Horror with a creepy yet intelligent story to back it up. Though the slow pacing and old school vibes won’t be for everyone, we enjoyed our time with a title that was clearly crafted with care from a developer that likes to think outside the box.
Reviewed with Game Pass
Format: PC, Xbox
Genre: Horror, Puzzle, Adventure
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Download link: Microsoft Store