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Bloober Team is no stranger to horror games. Over the past several years, they’ve made a name for themselves by crafting a range of unique, psychological horror experiences including Layers of Fear, Observer, and Blair Witch. Their latest title, The Medium, is their most ambitious game yet, and features a split-reality that allows players to explore two worlds simultaneously. An Xbox console exclusive (timed), The Medium is only available on capable PCs and Xbox Series consoles. Bloober Team has stated it simply wasn’t possible to create the game on older machines due to the implementation of the split-reality essentially running two game instances in parallel. As an avid horror fan, I couldn’t wait to dive in.
You assume the role of Marianne, and at the outset you are introduced to the fact that you were an orphan whose foster father, Jack, has passed away. After the obligatory game mechanic introductions through a short prologue, Marianne receives a mysterious phone call which beckons her to a remote location, and thus begins the heart of the story.
If you’ve followed any coverage of The Medium then you are acutely aware of the details of the split-reality. Marianne has a gift, or a curse depending on your perspective, which allows her to experience an alternate dimension in parallel to reality. The game wastes no time in introducing this to the player, and when it first occurs, it’s rather disruptive. I had a tendency to lock my focus onto one of the screens to progress, and it took me a little while to ensure I was checking both instances for points of interest. After a short while however, it became second nature and I could then fully appreciate what Bloober Team had created. Not only is the game designed in a way where you have to work between dimensions to solve puzzles, but it also allowed the team to enhance aspects of the story-telling along the way. By highlighting the differences between our perceived reality and what was either occurring unseen, or in the past, the player slowly uncovers details of Marianne’s past and the horrors that had been forgotten to time.
The Medium uses fixed camera angles which also took some getting used to. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that it immediately gave me flashbacks of the classic Resident Evils, but thankfully the controls are far more intuitive than those games. I still had moments of frustration from time to time, but they were by no means a hindrance. What fixed camera angles do allow, is the developer to highlight environments and scenes for the player as they feel appropriate. And in that regard, I found many of the scenes to be highly cinematic with some beautiful aesthetics, particularly when seeing both dimensions at once. The contrast that is presented throughout the game is one of its most endearing aspects, particularly when you reach some of the most impactful scenes.
While The Medium has generally been classified as a horror game, I feel that does it a disservice to a degree. In fact, it’s hard to classify it as a single genre as it’s one of the most unique gaming experiences I’ve had recently. I’d label it a narrated thriller with some horroresque elements. There is no weaponry, no traditional combat, and no RPG elements. Instead you go from one environment to the next while Marianne narrates nearly the entire journey. While there’s some light puzzle-solving, The Medium at its core is a personal story, in which the pieces of the puzzle are slowly put together along the way. This is enhanced by collectibles you’ll find along the way which trigger memories, provide additional character narration, and generally fill in gaps of the past. The narration itself, and the characters you meet along the way, are highlighted by impressive voice-acting, with emotional and impactful performances.
Bloober Team has a talented ability to craft horror journeys that also touch on real-life mental disorders. Blair Witch for example played on a famous IP, but also told a harrowing tale of a veteran suffering from PTSD. While The Medium is a mind-bending trip of recollection, at its core it is a tale about childhood trauma, abuse, and guilt. In this vein, I truly enjoyed what the game presented and how the pieces came together by the end. To be clear, it isn’t a game that you can play a piece of and fully understand. It must be finished as the final scene is a culminating end-cap to the entire story.
Environmental horror games can benefit greatly from directional sound design and fortunately Bloober Team tackled this extremely well. The soundtrack itself isn’t filled with standard musical tracks, but rather an arrangement of tones that range from whimsical to ominous depending on the current situation. Most notably, there’s a stark contrast between the musical accompaniment when in reality versus the alternate dimension. The music in the dark dimension is sharp, gritty, and industrial. If you’ve ever dove into Trent Reznor’s extended catalog in the past, you have a sense of what to expect. It has impact, and there are scenes I can vividly replay in my head that provided a sense of dread in part due to the score, and the way in which it was delivered. The directional implementation is excellent as well thus I would highly recommend playing The Medium with headphones or a decent surround sound setup. Hearing a creature’s guttural taunting as it chases you from behind is simultaneously stressful and incredible.
As I noted earlier, The Medium is only available on PC and Xbox Series consoles. I played on the Xbox Series X and was generally pleased with performance. Bloober Team games while memorable, have typically not run extremely well on consoles so I didn’t know what to expect going in. But save for a few framerate hiccups, the game ran very well with no issues to report. The environments are absolutely the highlight, with a nice variety throughout that is further enhanced by the two dimensions. Lighting is beautiful and will have you reaching for the screenshot button more often than you would expect.
It’s worth noting that there are no chapters in the game, no level select, and no going back to prior locations. It is a completely linear game with a limited checkpoint system. So if you’re one for achievements/trophies, be aware that you’ll want to use a guide during your playthrough or you will have no choice but to play through the game a second time.
I truly enjoyed The Medium. Beyond simply being unique, it tells a personal and complete story. Once the credits roll, you reflect on the journey as a whole and the lives of those involved. While specific sections stand out due to their impact from the split-reality, it’s the narrative and the way it’s presented that is memorable. In this vein, Bloober Team is a very talented studio, and I hope they continue to push boundaries with horror experiences that tell meaningful stories. The Medium has very few jump scares and it’s not about killing a bunch of monsters and then moving on to the next. It’s deeper and more intimate, with notable imagery and symbolism subtly presented to the player along the way. It makes you think, and asks you to experience a character from their perspective rather than your own. I, for one, believe the industry could use more games like it.