This Game’s Title Might Be Underselling Things a Little
I’ve been contemplating on how I can say this without coming across sounding like some kind of uppity, pretentious “video game analyst” out to provide an “enlightening critique”, but I’m at a loss. So, I guess I’ll just come right out and say it—The Medium is a work of art. Now, now, don’t back out of the review just yet. This isn’t me putting it on a pedestal or trying to start some kind of crazy philosophical debate. It’s not a perfect game. In fact, I’m going to get into some things that I didn’t like about it later. But, as a whole, it is quite literally a work of art.
As someone who prefers music as their creative art of choice, I’m generally not comfortable going on and on about visuals because, well, it’s kind of out of my league. But I can’t not do that with The Medium. There is a constant influx of visual, artistic information being thrown at you at all times, and I loved every minute of it. It’s also the first time that I’ve said “wow, look at this masterful use of juxtaposition” to myself while playing a video game—and believe you me when I tell you that I found myself saying that a lot.
The Medium follows the story of Marianne, a young woman living in Kraków, Poland (huh, that sounds familiar) whose life has been anything but picturesque. Abandoned as a child, she saw herself bouncing between foster homes before finally finding a father in a man named Jack who, despite running a mortuary, was anything but macabre. On top of this, she also dealt with recurring visions involving the murder of a young, unidentifiable girl, and, most importantly, her seemingly uncontrollable ability to step beyond our own realm into the spirit world. Marianne’s life is, in a word, rough, and things only get worse with the eventual passing of her father.
Before she can even begin to mourn Jack’s death, however, she receives a phone call from a man who seems eerily well-informed of her situation, telling her to head to Hotel Newa should she want the answers that she’s been desperately seeking her entire life. So, with nowhere to turn and curiosity eating away at her very core, our protagonist sets off to the abandoned communist resort to (hopefully) get the closure that she desires.
The Medium, like all Bloober Team games I’ve played up to this point, makes no effort whatsoever to hide the fact that it is entirely story-driven. It goes beyond simply using cutscenes to tell The Medium‘s tale, and instead chooses to interweave bits and pieces of Marianne’s story—and the stories of others—into every detail of gameplay. Of course, this isn’t Bloober Team’s first rodeo, so it shouldn’t be very surprising that they succeed. Nearly every sight and sound in the game aids in telling the game’s story in some way, and the scenes are set in ways that are, by and large, just cryptic enough to force you to think a little without making you need to stop and contemplate everything.
As great as The Medium‘s story is, I will say that I noticed an issue when it came to pacing. In all honesty, I was a little worried during the first part of the game. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the first handful of hours honestly felt really slow. The Bloober Team magic didn’t seem to be there, and while all of the set pieces were there, the story was basically just “explore a questionably haunted hotel.” However, just when I started to believe that all I was going to get out of the game was an extended look at how to masterfully use symbolism and a “just-okay” story, the game whisked me off in a direction that I wasn’t expecting—and that was all it took to have me hooked indefinitely.
When you first see, or even play, The Medium, the easiest thing to do would be to label it as a psychological horror game. And when you do that, you automatically assume that you’re going to be struggling to stay alive most of the time. And, while I can’t say that the entirety of this game isn’t without its threats, The Medium feels less “psychological horror,” and more “atmospheric horror adventure.” Gameplay, as you can see very clearly in the picture above, takes place within two different worlds—the normal world and the spirit world. Sometimes you’re in one or the other, and sometimes you’re in both—and you very rarely have a say in how this plays out. However, it doesn’t really matter which side(s) of the spirit realm you’re on. Things may look different, but they actually play quite the same.
When it comes down to it, the reality is that the core of The Medium‘s gameplay consists of little more than exploration and simple puzzle solving. Most of the time you’ll be walking around, picking up items, and trying to sort your way through the mess that is Miwa. Of course, being a medium and all, Marianne’s got access to a couple of tricks that most normal people don’t. Regardless of which world you’re in, you can use your Insight ability to highlight certain objects—such as items with a strong spiritual residue, or objects that could be useful in solving a puzzle. Naturally, spirit world Marianne’s got access to a more impressive kit, which includes the ability to harness spirit energy to create protective barriers or blast hostile entities. And, if you ever find yourself stuck when you’re controlling both Mariannes at the same time, a quite-literal out-of-body experience can help you access new areas. It might sound like a lot, but it’s all integrated incredibly well, and the rather relaxed nature of most of the puzzle-solving elements means you won’t be scrambling to remember which buttons do what. Oh, but, as a word of caution—I’d suggest using a controller if you’re playing this on PC. The controls may not be demanding, but they did feel rather clunky with a keyboard and mouse.
Okay, so I’m going to level with you again. At the risk of dipping into art snob territory for the second time in this review, I’m going to tell you that the best part about this game isn’t playing through it—it’s experiencing it. I know, I know, it’s cheesy. I’d laugh at it most of the time, too. But the consistent and immaculate use of artistic symbolism that carefully decorates each and every corner of The Medium is truly a sight to behold. Ironically, my favorite parts are ones that I can’t even really talk about. You see, there are certain times where you… find yourself outside of Hotel Newa, let’s say, like in the picture above. And it’s during these times where The Medium‘s artistic value shines full force. From the dreamy and horrifying garden mazes, to the bureaucratic and blood-red butcher’s den, I couldn’t help but feel as though these were the essence of where The Medium‘s creative capacity is brought to heights that no other parts of the game reach. I would have very gladly played an entire game in these ethereal realms, and I genuinely hope that it isn’t the last time that we see such wonderous artistic creation from Bloober Team.
Despite its decrepit state, most of your time within Hotel Miwa is surprisingly safe—regardless of which world you’re in. However, there are times when The Medium throws in a dash of good ‘ol survival horror, and, in this game, it goes by the name “the Maw.” A physical manifestation of negative emotions such as anger, pain, and longing, the Maw exists only to take things that it wants—and, wouldn’t you know it, it really wants your skin. I’m serious, this thing follows you around talking about how great your skin is throughout the entire game. He’s obsessed with it—so obsessed, that it actually borders on being comedic at times. But it doesn’t matter how much he wants it, because he can’t have it!
Encounters with the Maw are two primary things: 1) scripted, and 2) very dangerous. Outside of being able to stun him once or twice if you have any leftover spirit energy (which you usually won’t), you’re basically dead if he catches you. Fortunately, he’s not too difficult to outfox. In the spirit realm, all you need to do is make sure that he doesn’t see you. In the physical realm, he can’t see you—he’s literally blind—so he instead relies on sound. Oh, he’s also invisible. Because of this, you need to move slowly, look for cues (shimmering air, flickering lights, etc.), and hold your breath (but not for too long). A few of these can be trial and error—especially if you’re using a keyboard—but none of them are difficult, and they only serve to add additional flavor and context to both the story and the gameplay.
Miwa is for You-a
I think I’ve hit my legal limit on flowery language in this review already, so I’ll keep it plain and simple in the end; The Medium is a fun, unsettling atmospheric horror game that is guaranteed to knock your socks off if you even remotely appreciate artistic design. It’s not a “traditional horror game,” but, then again, none of the Bloober Team games I’ve ever played have been traditional horror games. If you have a day to spare and want to spend it with a game guaranteed to draw you in (even if it takes a few hours to do so), then I don’t think you’ll regret taking The Medium out for a spin.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Xbox Series X|S ; Publisher: Bloober Team SA ; Developer: Bloober Team; Players: 1 ; Released: January 28, 2021 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of The Medium provided by the publisher.