Almost three months later after launch, Xbox Series X gets its first next-gen console exclusive.
While you might have hoped for a bigger blockbuster to take that honour, The Medium nonetheless aims to be a proper next-gen horror title from Polish developer Bloober Team, who have spent recent years carving out a niche in psychological horror games like Layers of Fear and Blair Witch.
That said, its next-gen aspirations come mostly from its tech, from its trademark spitscreen dual reality system to ray tracing (the latter however isn’t supported on Xbox Series S) as much of its gameplay and style deliberately evokes classic survival horror games like Resident Evil and, more overtly, Silent Hill.
The result is a next-gen game that’s actually pretty old-fashioned while lacking the elements that made those games so terrifyingly memorable.
Set in the studio’s home town of Krakow in Poland, you play as Marianne, a woman haunted by a dream (or memory?) of a girl’s murder. Such visions are however common for her as the titular medium who has the power to communicate with spirits as well as having a sixth sense for hidden objects (albeit an overused mechanic when most game characters seem to have superhuman senses).
Things start off pretty heavy and sombre - the story beginning as she prepares for the funeral of her adoptive father - but things pick up once you receive a mysterious phone call that leads Marianne to the nearby abandoned Niwa Hotel, which may be the key to uncovering the truth about her past.
Fans of The Shining will know that hotels are never a good sign: what was originally a workers’ holiday resort in Communist-era Poland transpires to be the site of a grisly massacre, while its history goes further back to the Nazi occupation, as the game touches on other sensitive topics like child abuse and the Holocaust, though it’s careful not to devolve into crude exploitation.
So yes, the subject matter remains grim throughout. It’s then that Marianne’s talkiness becomes welcoming. Not as po-faced as you’d initially assume, at times she’s aware of the absurdity of her situation, and you find yourself warming to her habit of getting sweary under duress or quirks like an endearing attachment to a pair of bolt cutters, a handy tool you acquire early on.
The Dual Sense
Setting the story in the late 90s feels like a deliberate nod to the survival horror games of that period, right down to the use of a fixed camera perspective. Silent Hill is the obvious influence, both in how you’re regularly traversing between the real world and a more nightmarish one (the macabre imagery however was inspired by surrealist Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński) and how that series’ legendary composer Akira Yamaoka has also scored this spirit world with his distinct eerie industrial soundscapes.
What’s unique about The Medium is that Marianne is able to exist in both the physical and spirit world at the same time, presented in split-screen as the game is effectively rendering two worlds in real-time. It’s an intriguing technique, seemingly only possible with super-fast SSDs (we should however note that on PC, which is where we have been reviewing the game, SSD is listed as a recommendation rather than a requirement).
As impressive as it looks, it often feels like a gimmick since you’re usually only focusing on one screen, doubly so when you’re going ‘out-of-body’ in the spirit world to reach an area that’s inaccessible in the physical world, making that screen obsolete anyway.
Sometimes the two worlds inter-link, such as how you may have to solve a puzzle in the physical world to create a spirit well in the spirit world, which you can absorb as energy to power up a switch back in the physical world. But as being in dual realities only occurs for a third of the game, it’s telling the more memorable puzzles take place when you’re traversing between the worlds in more conventional ways (if you can call walking through mirrors conventional).
If you were expecting to fight evil spirits while managing limited resources, you should know that this isn’t a survival horror, even though it looks like one. This is still predominantly a puzzle-based adventure game, where Marianne’s medium powers involve putting tormented souls to rest. The closest you’ll have to combat is putting up an energy shield in the spirit world to burn away swarms of moths. Moths!
Occasionally, you’ll find a larger demonic monster on your tail in both worlds but these are played out through dull and hackneyed stealth and chase sequences. While it does talk about wanting to eat you and wear your skin, its uninspired design pales compared to Mr. X or Pyramid Head.
It may not be aiming for cheap jump-scares but even though there is an undercurrent of disturbing eeriness in both the environments and subject matter, the underlying problem for The Medium is that it just isn’t very scary. Even its fixed camera fails to instil a sense of uncertainty or dread that this limited perspective provided in classic horror games, though it does help reduce disorientation when navigating dual worlds.
There’s still a decent story in there that keeps you involved as its 8-9 hour runtime reaches a conclusion that balances between neatly tying everything up while still throwing in ambiguity. But if it’s not sending chills down your spine, does it matter?
The Medium Verdict
As the first real next-gen exclusive for Xbox Series X, The Medium is technically an impressive accomplishment that rarely makes the most of its presentation meaningfully, while lacking the features of the classic horror games it’s inspired by.
As a Game Pass title, it works as a decent spooky adventure and provides some authentic Polish history and aesthetics, but anyone hoping for this to fill the Silent Hill-shaped hole in their lives should adjust expectations accordingly.