Gaming News

24 Feb 2021

The Medium Review: A New Take On Classic Horror

The Medium is a narrative horror game where you play as Marianne, the titular Medium. She exists both in reality and the spirit world, and we control her in both planes, sometimes interchangeably but often simultaneously.

This inventive game design adds some freshness to the classic horror tropes throughout, but it can’t save the story which peaks and troughs in all the wrong ways.

Tonight You’re Gonna Scare Me Like It’s 1999

The Medium's dual worlds offer puzzle-solving and atmosphere in spades

Fittingly for a new-gen game set in 1999, The Medium is a fantastic blend of the old and the new. Taking its cues from the PS1 horror classics Silent Hill and Resident Evil, the game uses fixed camera angles to keep an element of dread steady throughout, ensuring you’re never quite sure of exactly where you are or where to go.

While occasionally frustrating, Marianne is exploring a new setting - a creepy hotel which is not quite what it seems - so her wandering back and forth between rooms is realistic, if nothing else.

While the fixed cameras provide the tradition, the split-screen controls bring innovation. For around half the game, you will just be regular Marianne.

For the other half, her spirit world twin appears. These characters move through the same basic map, although sometimes you will have to perform an action in one world to open up a path in the other.

Spirit world Marianne often cuts through weird skin doors with a rusty razor blade, while regular Marianne gets a pair of bolt cutters.

This type of exploration, in two worlds at once, with shared obstacles, is exactly the type of innovation the horror genre needs, especially with the rigid fixed cameras.

Some will feel it’s a bit of a gimmick, but the game gets the balance between when to use it and when to hold back spot on. It’s a power that grows with you too, as over time you can choose to fully control the spirit world Marianne, travel between worlds via mirrors, and find new tools to get around.

Calling it a gimmick does a disservice to the excellent game design here; it’s taken the concept of multiplayer split-screen and reimagined it from a single player point of view. Whether this exact concept works for you or not, we should be celebrating the new generation introducing games prepared to think differently.

Like A Story From Your Mam, There Are Too Many Details Added Too Often

Essentially running two games at once, The Medium is an impressive technical feat

If it’s to The Medium’s credit that it thinks differently, then it’s to its detriment that it overthinks everything.

Horror is at its best when it’s simple: Jaws works because we know how a shark is scary and why a shark is scary – most of the work is done for us.

The Medium tries to be too clever at times, and things which are supposed to be chilling just end up confusing you. It’s a slow burn, and there’s definitely a place for that with so many other games built on constant gratification with little substance. The problem is The Medium is so slow it often feels like the candle’s been blown out.

What’s most frustrating is how well it strikes the balance in the opening exchanges. The game begins with Marianne searching for her step-father’s tie, so she can get him ready for his funeral. It’s low stakes, but the dark, shadowy morgue brings an eerie atmosphere that captures the tone of the game immediately.

We then see spirit world Marianne take over as she sends her step-father off to the afterlife for good. This is then interrupted by a strange, panicked phone call which whisks her off to the hotel where the rest of the game takes place. Once we arrive, Marianne is constantly jumping from one objective to another (find a way upstairs, open this door, find a rusty razor blade in the spirit world to cut down those creepy skin barriers).

The main objective remains to discover the purpose of the phone call, but it feels so distant and impersonal.

The Devil – Or The Skull-Faced Devil Monster – Is In The Details

The game's Silent Hill influences are underlined by the inclusion of Akira Yamaoka as the game's composer

A lot of that is down to the game’s smaller design choices. The split-screen storytelling is a big positive for the game, but it’s let down by the little things. Because we’re given nothing to go on, most of the storytelling comes through interacting with small objects and collectables in each room.

But these stories aren’t as rich as What Remains Of Edith Finch and don’t stitch together as well as developer Bloober Team’s own Layers Of Fear, so even if you find them all, it’s never quite enough. I respect the game for not wanting to hold my hand, but I wish it didn’t jilt me at the altar.

Because of this, the game struggles with resolution. The game’s ultimate ending is unexpected, brave, and just about earned, but the mini endings throughout don’t feel as satisfying.

There are a number of creatures you must defeat in the game, but for the most part, you defeat them by fulfilling the game’s basic objectives of 'climb the stairs, close the door, do the Charleston on a flagpole', until a cutscene arrives and vanquishes the creature for you – Marianne never feels too involved in the whole affair.

Marianne herself is a great character though, with a quirky sense of humour no doubt honed from years of being “that weird girl who talks to dead people,” she swears in ways which feel realistic but not gratuitous, and she has the single worst dad-run I’ve ever seen.

She’s easy to root for. But too often, she’s a passenger. Even with the opportunity to explore her story in both the real world and the spirit world, the game occasionally pulls her out of it and gives you the story from someone else’s angle, all too aware that Marianne alone is not enough to tell a tale which never needed to be so complicated in the first place.

Verdict

The Medium starts well and ends well, and the risks it took with bringing back fixed cameras and introducing single-player split-screen both come off, especially with the environment design able to dial the hotel’s creepiness up to eleven in the spirit world.

It does the hard parts, but the simpler stuff lets it down. The story meanders too often in the middle, relies too much on collectables which don’t tell the whole story, and it puts too much trust in cutscenes and not enough in the players. Innovative, but not quite groundbreaking.

3.5/5

Review copy provided by the publisherReviewed on Xbox Series S