Released: 28 January 2021
Rating: PEGI 18 (Extreme Violence, Strong Language)
When it comes to horror, few franchises are as fondly remembered as Silent Hill. The series’ eerie titular locale and grotesque creatures are as iconic as the surrounding fog, or that time an adorable dog turned out to be behind everything. There have been few games like it, until a title from Bloober Team (Layers of Fear, Blair Witch) was released as the first Xbox next-gen exclusive: The Medium.
Few of this year’s releases are as loaded with potential as The Medium. Players are tasked with taking control of Marianne, the titular medium who heads to the abandoned Niwa resort to solve a mystery and investigate the horrors of the Niwa massacre. The twist is that players inhabit the real world and the spiritual world—a world inspired by the paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński—simultaneously, with the game rendering both realities in a split-screen setting. Players solve puzzles and explore the Niwa resort whilst meeting spirits and uncovering various truths.
The game is a genuine technical accomplishment that is marred by some issues in its second half. Despite those issues, there are many positive aspects that Bloober Team have achieved. For one, the game’s visual and auditory presentation is fantastic.
The Medium is tasked with visually rendering two distinct worlds based on the same spaces and the game does this excellently. The spirit world in particular is gorgeous, creating a hellish landscape that is ironically full of life. Both worlds benefit from incredibly intricate designs and wonderfully smooth texturing to create detailed interiors and dense exteriors. These factors are improved further thanks to lighting that accentuates every shade of shadow.
The player observes all of this through a ‘fixed-camera’ perspective. Although, this term is slightly misleading given how actively the camera moves, tracking Marianne and her path without moving too fast to be disorienting. It often feels like the camera is spying on Marianne, with some shots giving the sense that the player is peering in on her. The camera itself never feels unmotivated and actually aids in the feeling of tension, giving the player views of Marianne’s isolation in the vast spaces around her.
The aforementioned tension is also aided by tremendous sound design. Every footstep in the Niwa resort echoes through the halls; Marianne’s boot treads heavily on the grassy forest floor. These small sounds are made more prominent against an eerie backdrop of stillness, with the atmosphere and lack of ambience further emphasising feeling isolation. However, the game’s score, co-composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka, does sometimes kick-in to heighten levels of tension and add to the creepiness. The score is often subdued but beautiful in the way that it supplements the atmosphere with plenty of drawn-out strings and low bassy notes.
The technical demands are huge for The Medium, given the game renders the two realities at the same time in some puzzles. The good news is that the game runs pretty well on the Xbox Series S, on which I played the full 8-10 hour runtime. The only problem on this front arises from a consistent texture pop-in problem where textures on some clothing and other items take a second to load in. Ugly visual artifact aside, the game should be commended for running 99% of the time at consistent framerates (barring one small flashback section), even when balancing the two realities.
With all this said, why do I still feel a bit disappointed in The Medium? Well, simply put, it’s because it’s a literal and critical game of two halves. The first half–in which you first explore Niwa, meet a strange young spirit known as Sadness and find out clues pertaining to what happened, is narratively intriguing. The relationship that forms between Marianne and the spirit Sadness is odd but strangely warm. Marianne’s comfort with the spirit makes her interactions with Sadness feel surprisingly calm but, crucially, doesn’t hurt the mystery around who Sadness is. These questions even continue to grow as Marianne finds herself having to explore the lives of others and is threatened by a mysterious entity known as The Maw. The gameplay really hones in on the dual-world puzzle mechanics. In fact throughout the game the puzzles are the better parts of the gameplay, with larger-scale puzzles later in the game encouraging logical thinking above everything else to solve them.
However, the first half of the narrative is largely set dressing for the game’s second half. This is where, sadly, The Medium’s narrative really buckles under the weight of numerous character reveals and, more concerningly, a heaping of numerous thematic threads relating to war and communism that never feel fully explored. This ends up hurting the narrative overall by making it feel incredibly encumbered by journey’s end and also results in serious and hard topics—such as child abuse and suicide—feeling very shallow in their approach. It also doesn’t help that a key narrative scene frames a wholly unsympathetic character as someone to be redeemed. Ultimately this leads to, at best, a misjudged and stuffy narrative that has a poor ending. For this game, a simplification of the plot elements might have worked better.
Additionally, the gameplay in the second half also severely hinders the game’s creepiness. It doesn’t do enough to evolve in its second half and features some awkward stealth sections throughout. Aside from an impressive late-game chase sequence, the second half’s gameplay develops too much of a rhythm; it allows the player to get comfortable but then doesn’t throw the player off with any new mechanics or sudden changes. Sadly, this does undercut the tension the player experiences and perhaps that’s the bigger problem—the endgame feels too constrained.
As mentioned before, The Medium is definitely a technical accomplishment and can be lauded as such for doing something genuinely unique in the horror genre. It’s just a shame that for all its good will in the first half and the excellent presentation, it squanders its own potential.
Final Verdict: 6/10
Words by Alex Green
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