There is a lot going on The Medium. It's a busy mix of mechanics and story threads that jostle to fit in, never settling, and rarely trusting the player to enjoy themselves without a watchful hand to guide them. I spent a lot of time tapping the run button for example, because I wanted to move faster, but you can only run when allowed. And if The Medium decides you're in an atmospheric moment you'd better damn well walk and soak it in. It feels like a story that someone spent so long thinking about, planning, and clearly loving, that they forgot about the bit where another person has to play it and panicked at the last minute that people might play it wrong.
Release date: January 28, 2021
Platform(s): PC and Xbox Series X
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
It's part a love letter to the old days of fixed camera horror games (with Silent Hill's composer Akira Yamaoka providing some great sparsely atmospheric music in places), and part an attempt to reimagine the idea by showing a split reality on-screen where the real and spirit realm overlap. The idea is that, as a medium called Marianne, you're able to exist in both planes and manipulate things across them as you try to solve the murder of a little girl. One of the main mechanics, for example, is the idea of drawing power from a Spirit Well, a sort of ghostly energy source in the spectral world, to power a fuse box in the real world and open a door.
The idea of being able to use separate but coexisting worlds to progress is interesting, but it's never really expressed in a way that feels innovative. Often the overall gist is still the usual locked door/find key idea - there are doors in one world, a key in the other and that's about it. I waited for a 'oh that's good' moment when the split camera sections did something clever, but it never came.
It's a very controlling experience too. While there are some good puzzles, there's often a sparsity of things to interact with, making progress a simple job of matching up what little you're given, in the order you're meant to. There's a big lack of freedom to what you're actually able to do. At one point I entered and explored a room, wandering between a series of clearly important areas - tables covered with items and so on - that were inert, and apparently contained nothing of use. A few minutes later I found some arbitrary object that then created a breadcrumb trail to all the areas I'd previously discovered with the objects I couldn't touch before, now able to trigger sequential pieces of a story reward.
This odd structure of objects only becoming relevant when you find them in the right order is a constant theme: gameplay and puzzles acting to fence you into a path so you can receive a tour in the way the guide intended. There's rarely much agency as a player - the gameplay doesn't serve the story, but rather controls it, using object picking puzzles and treasure hunts to meter it out. It strips the fun out of exploring when you realize finding something boils down to when you're meant to, not when you actually do.
I see that town
The gameplay rarely acknowledges the tension or momentum of what's going on either. There's a particularly long puzzle towards the end that's perfectly fine and nicely designed but just drops like a sedentary weight on the "holy shit what's happening?" build-up of the story. Sections often exist in suspended moments of their own that pay little attention to ongoing events. The stealth sections are extremely guilty of this. There's a creature called The Maw pursuing you, voiced by the usually excellent Troy Baker. Here, however, he's apparently channeling 'The Muppets do Satan', ricocheting wildly between Gollum, Jermaine Clement, Tim Curry in Rocky Horror, and at least three of the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal.
These Maw sections are often big non sequitur moments. Either because he rocks up for no clear reason, or because you have to solve some arbitrary puzzle to progress. (At one point I had to electrocute him to get past which I don't really think is how ghosts work.) These moments also lack as much threat as they do narrative purpose. He's basically invisible most of the time and there's no clear indication of when he can see you or when you're in danger. 'Press the right stick to hold your breath' the game explains at one point without ever clarifying when and how this might help. Death or escape are the only resolutions and you don't know which one is coming until it happens.
Sometimes it feels like some things have been added to fix some of these issues. Spectral butterflies appear to lead you around. In one single section, an arrow appears over your head to tell you where to look. One stealth section let me die repeatedly until a prompt finally appeared to tell me I should use a mechanic that had never been a part of stealth before. It's a game that isn't prepared to be played any way other than intended and sometimes has to point really hard at what that intent is. I solved what I thought was a good puzzle but wasn't able to complete it until the game walked me, step by step, through dialogue for each part of the puzzle in turn. Another time I died at the end of a level and, knowing what to do, went straight to the stuff I needed... Except I couldn't pick anything up until I went back to the start, triggered the initial step and then went back to the thing I was just at. The checkpointing and saving is also pretty bad. You can't save manually and so just have to hope the background auto-saving will be close behind you. It isn't easy to die but if you do you'll have to retread entire chunks.
When is too much?
Like the mechanics there's a scattershot 'didn't know where to stop' feel to the plotting. There is a good story here, but again: just too much. There are at least three substantial threads that feel like they could have held their own, but coiled together they heave and strain against each other until the very end explains what's really going on. At that point it becomes very clear which parts mattered, and which bits could have been a line but ended up a chapter. Things like an entire, almost DLC-like gameplay coda in the middle is interesting, but an unnecessary chunk of game that adds nothing beyond telling you a specific background event happened.
The sad thing is, I did like the core of the story. There's a good pay off in the end once you filter out the extra stuff, and there are some nice gameplay moments and ideas that could have done more given space to develop. There's a phrase, 'kill your darlings' that's meant as creative advice. It means you sometimes have to completely get rid of ideas and things you've worked really hard on for the good of the overall story; things you might love and adore, and that aren't necessarily bad, but really need to go in order to make the complete experience better. The Medium feels like that never happened. Gameplay and narrative are desperate for a streamlining edit that never came. There are flashes where you can see what this could have been: atmospheric moments of exploration, a couple of lovely detective-style puzzles, some really interesting insights into the traumatic post-communist 90s Poland setting. But it tries to do too much and what nice beats there are feel like luck struck through quantity rather than quality intent.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing here for me is that I've been a Bloober Team fan since the incredible Layers of Fear (still one of the best horror games of all time). It's a studio that's always had interesting ideas, stories, and mechanics, but none of that shows here. The Medium isn't even really a horror game, despite the setting and themes, and lacks any scares bar an early cheap jump. For a studio so focused on creating psychological horror it's hard to see this mildly spooky action-adventure as anything other than a misstep.
Reviewed on PC. Code supplied by the publisher.