I love horror entertainment. I love horror movies, books, attractions, shows about the paranormal or the scary. Everything adjacent to horror, either by visual aesthetics or tone, I am immediately intrigued; when it comes to games though, that is a different beast altogether. I’ve tried many games in the genre and I always wuss out in single player experiences (when others join me on the couch, I get by, but that is hardly suited for the best experience or a reliable way to play any game). This year, I’ve decided to remedy that blank spot in my revoir and start experiencing these games with the necessary “precautions” to at least ensure I can get through them without getting a heart attack midway through; play in the day only, headphones are off, but keep the TV loud, and (for the time being) no survival horror stuff – just the thought of the stress of resource management or losing a significant amount of progress is enough to cause severe anxiety, let alone playing them for real, which is also the reason I have never played a SoulsBorne game. When I saw “The Medium” I thought this is as good as a starting point as I will get and with it being the first Xbox next-gen exclusive, it sealed the deal.
What’s “The Medium” all about then? You play as Marianne, a medium that can simultaneously exist in reality and the spirit world, who goes to the Niwa Worker’s Resort, an abandoned communist vacation resort, to find Thomas, a mysterious man who contacted her and told her that he knows about the origin of her powers. This kicks off an 8 to 10 hour psychological-horror adventure and it is a damn good one; as I’ve said, horror in video games is really effective on me, so I’ll spent as little as possible on that aspect of the game. Long story short, even without headphones on and with light sneaking in through the curtains, I was anxious playing “The Medium”; not as much as I was expecting and even played it for a session during the night, but that is a good thing in my book. Essentially, the horror aspects of the game mostly come from the central mystery of the game, the world and characters it creates, and a few moments of stealth/chase-sequences involving a particular monster called The Maw (voiced by Troy Baker who is really effective). Beyond that, it was mostly a riskless exploration of an area, although still tense and horrifying due to some other features of the game, mainly the audiovisual presentation.
The game has some clear inspirations that it proudly wears on its sleeve; people more familiar with video game horror have likened the whole aesthetic to Silent Hill, while the studio itself references abstract Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski (look his work up it is phenomenal) and even hired famed composer Akira Yamaoka (known for his work on Silent Hill) to do the music composing for the spirit world. This is why I grew to really like this game, despite all the crutches I placed on it; the spirit world in particular is an eerie and disturbing place that always was a highlight of the game, while the music was creepy and off putting. Likewise, the real world’s visual and music direction was on point, with this melancholic feeling of a resort that was supposed to house joyous moments, but ended up in a dilapidated state and brought only pain and suffering to its visitors and staff. Even beyond that, the sound design in this game is hair-raising good; my favorite example is when in the spirit world, you have to cut through a particular object and the sound it makes as you do that is stuck in my head for ever now, so thanks for that! Unfortunately, there are a fair few bit of technical issues; flashing lights on surfaces and faces, severe texture pop-in issues, getting stuck in geometry, are just some of the issues I faced in my playthrough, but they are not fatal flaws or even severe enough to hurt the experience in a meaningful way.
In terms of gameplay, “The Medium” can be called a puzzle-exploration focused experience; besides the narrative stuff that I will get to, most of the game is centered around solving puzzles. Some puzzles are very straight-forward, some less so; some use the real or spirit world, some use both simultaneously. I thought most of these hit the balance of ‘being challenging enough to give satisfaction for solving them, but not enough to keep the player stuck for too long’; throw in some spooky and tense stealth sections, some frenetic chase sequences, and a few trial and error “boss fights”, and you get a pretty varied and well-paced campaign.
Having said that, the game is heavily narrative-focused and that is what makes or breaks the game; thankfully, the game has some seriously creative talent behind it. The world of the Niwa resort is one full of mysteries, tragedies, and horrors for the player to discover and piece together; in particular, the real-world history of Niwa creates an interesting story to dissect and allow the player to make their mind up on what the game is about. There are tons of collectibles to discover and all of it points to the greater mystery and themes in very interesting and entertaining ways, especially when it comes to connecting with Marianne and the supporting cast. Speaking of which, the supporting cast absolutely steal the show; if you’ve seen anything about the game, then you’ve seen people complaining about Marianne’s inner monologues and while I agree, that was a minor annoyance that I was happy to deal with, in order to interact with the other characters. Specifically, the game presents a deeply disturbing and memorable exploration of characters affected by trauma, how they deal with it, and how they may end up dishing it out to others or what they are willing to do to make sure they or others don’t; it sounds like a lot to take in, and it may leave a lot of the connecting of all these stories and themes up until the very end, but it had me hooked from minute one and didn’t let go until the end.
Surprisingly, the end was not as satisfying as I had hoped; while a lot of the story and characters were connected in satisfying ways, the thematic conclusion left me a bit disappointed. The ambiguity of the ending in terms of the plot was the best choice and I appreciate how it creates a discussion around it, but the conclusion of what the story represents to me is not ‘extreme’ enough to create a strong reaction (not depressing or uplifting enough) or it’s not “true” enough to the characters in how I perceived them. This is a particularly subjective criticism of the story, but one that I found particularly impactful. There are also several little nitpicks with specific delivery of lines and about the writing itself, struggling to cope with the serious and mature tone of the story and themes; some lines from The Maw come to mind, but the most obvious – and obnoxious – example is Marianne noting how a particular tool sounds like the name of a fictional agent and keeps referring to it with that underlining tone. Not only is it a bad attempt for comic relief, it is also a distracting and immersion breaking one, but thankfully that only happens a handful of times. However, the most frustrating nitpick of all was the few times the camera system hindered the experience, rather than elevate it as it usually did. For the most part, the third-person, fixed camera made moments more cinematic, interesting, and stressful (especially in chase sequences and stealth), however some times it would imply depth where there was none, which led to me getting stuck and needing to reload a checkpoint, or it would lead me to keep dying over and over because I couldn’t see which direction was the one I was supposed to take in one of those chase sequences; these annoyances were 5% of my time with the game so I don’t think it is damaging, but it is very frustrating when it happens.
All in all, I’m glad that I played this game from beginning to end; Bloober team in particular are one of the many studios I wish I had some experience with due to how highly positive the buzz is surrounding most of their games and hopefully now I can start to dip my toes in even more stressful and impactful experiences from the horror genre. While I search for the next horror experience, if you like psychological-horror and great atmospheric, well-told narratives, excellent world-building, and some top-notch audiovisual presentation, you should look no further that “The Medium”.