The Medium Review: I See Dead People
In recent years, Polish developer Bloober Team has been a fixture in the horror gaming scene. The studio’s gory rise to glory began in 2016 with the psyche-shredding Layers of Fear. And, since then, they’ve continued to bang out thriller after thriller with games like Layers of Fear 2, Observer: System Redux, and Blair Witch, along with its VR port.
First released for Windows and the Xbox Series X|S in January, the studio’s latest title, The Medium, is easily their most ambitious to date. With jaw-dropping production values, a tense atmosphere, and a unique gameplay mechanic that allows you to explore two worlds at once, it’s clear Bloober Team put an immense amount of effort into their newest offering. Now, after months of waiting, PlayStation 5 owners finally have the chance to face their fears. But was it worth the wait?
It All Starts With A Dead Girl
The Medium puts players in control of Marianne. A psychic with a traumatic past and the power to step into the spirit world to communicate with the dead, she’s recently been haunted by visions of a young girl being executed in the forest. One day, while preparing her recently deceased foster father’s body for his funeral, she receives a mysterious phone call from a man named Thomas, who pleads with her to meet him at a crumbling Soviet-era resort located in the outskirts of Krakow. Wary but searching for answers, she sets off into the abandoned facility to find Thomas and uncover the secret behind her reoccurring nightmares.
If you’ve ever played a survival horror game before, The Medium‘s mechanics will be instantly familiar. You’ll explore the Niwa Workers’ Resort and its nearby ruins, solve puzzles, and find notes that drip-feed you details about the game’s story. The thing that makes the game stand out from its contemporaries is Marianne’s powers. As you investigate the environment, the screen will occasionally split in two, giving you a view of both Marianne in the real and spirit worlds. You’d think this would complicate things. But the way it’s executed here makes for some really cool set-piece moments that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
Almost every puzzle is built around slipping between the veils of realities and interacting with objects in both worlds. Occasionally, you’ll even need to have an out-of-body experience that allows you to exist completely in the spirit world. However, you can only do this for a limited time before you’re sucked back into Marianne’s body. As you can imagine, this makes for some pretty intense races against the clock as you rush to complete your objectives in time.
Face Your Fears
While you can occasionally soak up some residual energy to perform a spirit blast that stuns enemies or creates a shield to let you pass through swarms of flesh-eating moths, there’s no real combat to speak of in The Medium. Instead, you’ll need to carefully sneak around the environment to avoid your pursuer, a towering, gargoyle-like creature known only as The Maw. Or, when the shit hits the fan—as it often does—you’ll just have to run like hell in tightly-scripted chase scenes.
Some will probably bemoan the game’s lack of combat. But I think it added to the sense of dread and urgency. Cowering and holding your breath as the Predator-style silhouette of The Maw stomps past you, ready to crush your soul like a Capri Sun, is nothing short of exhilerating. Every time the creature appeared, I found my heart lodged firmly in my throat. That’s a testament to The Medium‘s superb direction and pacing that keeps the tension dialed high and the fear factor layered on thick.
Speaking of laying it on thick, The Medium‘s story touches on some pretty uncomfortable subjects. Trigger warning: topics like suicide, the sexual abuse of children, and even the Nazi atrocities of the holocaust play prominent roles in the game’s narrative. However, this isn’t just for shock value and never comes across as distasteful. Instead, these situations are used as powerful vehicles to tell an emotional and poignant story about trauma, resilience, and sacrifice. Oh, and giant, soul-sapping demons. Can’t forget those.
Grabbed By The Ghoulies
The Medium was a gorgeous game when it launched on the Xbox Series X|S and PC. And, as you can probably tell from the screens above, that’s still the case on the PS5. The game’s environments are lushly detailed and feature breathtaking lighting effects and artistic direction that really draws you into the world. However, what’s particularly striking are the environments in the spirit world. Inspired by the work of Polish surrealist artist and photographer Zdzislaw Beksinski, they’re a twisted hellscape that’s both unsettling and hauntingly beautiful. If I have anything bad to say about the game’s visuals, it’s that the character models aren’t quite as spectacular as the environments they occupy. Don’t get me wrong: They’re not bad by any stretch. Still, the uneven visuals do have a way of sticking out at times.
When it comes to audio, the audio department, The Medium is top-notch all around. The voice acting is hands down some of the best I’ve heard in years. Actors Kelly Burke and Graham Vick are unforgettable as Marianne and Thomas, with performances that will leave your hair on the back of your neck standing on end. Industry icon Troy Baker also brings The Maw to life with a delivery so frightening that it cemented the creature as one of my favorite video game antagonists in years.
Last but not least, I’d be remiss not to mention the game’s soundtrack. Co-composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill veteran Akira Yamaoka, it’s consistently excellent and does a spectacular job of enhancing the game’s already foreboding atmosphere.
The Medium on PS5 Is A Frightening Feast For Your DualSenses
One of my favorite things about the PS5 version of The Medium is how it showcases the capabilities of Sony’s DualSense controller. For example, the game uses haptic feedback to deliver a solid impact whenever a moth flies into your spirit shield. In another example, the haptics on the left and right sides of the controller pulsed in sync with flashing lights along a corridor. It was a cool effect that caught me by surprise and really made me appreciate the added immersion the DualSense’s impressive technology provides.
It’s not just about the haptics, either. From the tension in the adaptive triggers kicks on when charging a spirit blast to the way phone calls and tape recordings come in over the controller’s built-in speaker, it’s all used to really great affect. Hell, you can even use the lightbar in the controller to aim your flashlight or scroll through memos. Though I have to admit that I found that last function to be a bit too twitchy for my tastes. Still, the feature’s there if you want to use it. And if you’re not a fan, you can always just disable it as I did.
All told, Bloober Team deserves credit for putting the DualSense 5 to good use. And even though not every function is a hit, the vast majority do a fine job of adding to the experience in fun and interesting ways. I only wish more developers would take advantage of the hardware in a similar way.
The Medium Brings A Masterful Mix of Storytelling and Horror To The PS5
The game’s arrival on the PlayStation 5 has been a long time coming. But thankfully, it was well worth the wait. With its unique dual-world gameplay mechanics, gripping narrative, and excellent use of the DualSense controller’s features, The Medium on PS5 is yet another macabre masterpiece from the talent at Bloober Team. If you have even a passing interest in horror games or are looking for a powerful supernatural story to experience that isn’t afraid to touch on uncomfortable subjects, this is one game that demands a spot in your library.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS5 (reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PC; Publisher: Bloober Team; Developer: Bloober Team; Players: 1; Released: September 3, 2021; ESRB: M for Mature
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy.