Like the game’s protagonist, The Medium feels like it exists in two quite different realities. In the first, it’s the latest title from Bloober Team, an independent Polish developer known for smaller psychological horror titles such as Layers of Fear, Observer, and 2019’s Blair Witch. A clear evolution in both design and in terms of polish—but with a rumoured budget of just €7m (less than 10% of a typical recent blockbuster)—it’s an ambitious and intriguing experience that feels like the perfect fit for Game Pass’s ever-growing gaming buffet.
In the second reality, however, The Medium finds itself as an unexpected and unlikely flagship for Xbox’s new “Series” consoles. It’s a position of circumstance (mostly thanks to Halo Infinite’s delay) and one that’s introduced levels of attention and expectation that I’m not sure do it many favours. To my eyes, this is not a game that’s was made to go toe-to-toe with Sony’s latest and greatest, but to captivate, affect, and entrance on its own terms. And if, like me, you enjoy a good mystery, then it might just do all those things.
The Medium is a psychological horror game, but one that leans heavily on mystery and story, only lightly on action or jump scares. At a glance, it might look like a modern take on early survival horror like the Resident Evil and Silent Hill series, but the almost total lack of combat make it feel like a very different beast. Whether that’s a problem or a USP will depend on your tastes, but I loved it.
You play as Marianne, a gifted medium who recently lost her foster father and remains haunted by a recurring nightmare that she’s been having since she was a child. In the game’s short opening sequence, you’ll perform some initial investigations and experience the game’s hook of navigating both the real and spirit worlds. But it’s the mood of this section that really stands out and forms a pitch-perfect introduction for what lies ahead.
One phone call, a quick change of scenery, and a trudge through a suitably spooky forest later, you’ll arrive at the Niwa resort–the imposing hotel and grounds where you will spend the bulk of the next 10-or-so hours. It’s a great setting for the game: imposing, mysterious, and offering plenty of variety. Once there, you’ll explore, solve puzzles, uncover some disturbing history, and play a deadly game of hide and seek with a creature that wants to wear your skin as a coat. It’s the perfect getaway retreat!
To progress, you’ll need to make use of Marianne’s various powers, as well as your own powers of observation and deduction. Puzzles are mainly straightforward however, and unlikely to cause much frustration or delay–even when utilizing the dual world mechanic that should add complexity. They range from some extremely basic “find this item that’s basically right next to this thing you are reading” variations to a number of slightly more involved, multi-stage challenges as the game progresses. Action is also relatively simple and limited, involving hiding from a pursuer, some short but exhilarating chase or balance sequences, and the occasional use of “spirit powers” to manipulate the environment to your advantage.
So while there is puzzling and action involved, I would say the majority of the experience is made up of exploration, investigation, and discovery. I often see the term “walking simulator” used as an insult, and frequently about games that I’ve really enjoyed like Firewatch and What Became of Edith Finch?. The Medium clearly falls somewhere between these and more mainstream titles. Fans expecting frantic combat or a thrilling action-adventure may be disappointed, but fans of mood and story will potentially love it. More importantly, I suspect a bunch of other people will be won over by the game’s quality.
Your main reason to stay is the compelling, though occasionally grim, story that awaits you. The game comes with a trigger warning, which is understandable and probably well-deserved. Overall, however, I thought it was excellent—particularly as things come to a crescendo and the various elements fitted neatly into place. It helps that Marianne is a likeable lead, whether she’s facing off against untold evils or ruminating out loud about bolt cutters. But if you collect and read back through the various letters, notes, and cards that are available, you’ll also be rewarded with a significantly richer, more layered backstory for many of the other characters too. You really should.
And while you are exploring every corner of Niwa resort, you’ll likely notice the game’s brilliantly eerie atmosphere–helped along by stunning art design, dramatic lighting, and realistic materials. You’ll visit morgues, woods, and bunkers and encounter possessed radios, slimy tentacles (naturally), and rotting carcasses. The “fixed” camera angles might initially feel like an unnecessary throwback to survival horror classics, but they help create some claustrophobic moments and dramatic angles. Of course, they are not really fixed at all–nearly always panning, tracking, or chasing Marianne and catching glimpses of shadows or (formerly) inanimate objects to maximise the creepiness. We’re told that Niwa is a place of “madness, grief, and suffering,” and it looks and feels every inch of that.
It’s a game that sounds fantastic too, with haunting but refreshingly restrained scores from Arkadiusz Reikowski and Silent Hill’s Akira Yamaoka that are extremely effective. Ambient sound also adds a great deal to the mix, from the rumble of distant thunder to the creaks of a door, squawk of a crow, or the footsteps of your pursuer as they approach. The game recommends using headphones and I’d wholeheartedly agree with that, because between this and Observer: System Redux, Bloober Team’s sound department have been killing it lately.
It’s not perfect, however. Mechanics and ideas are introduced very slowly, making the first half of the game particularly straightforward. Bloober Team also appears overly keen to hold the player’s hand for some reason, with prompts for abilities like spirit force and spirit blast still appearing on screen after hours of player experience. Finally, I should note a few dodgy animations (“running,” I’m looking at you in particular–try to learn from “walking,” please) and that the game’s resolution does take a hit when displaying two worlds simultaneously. The latter might be an understandable consequence of having to render both scenes, but it’s still slightly jarring when the rest of the game often looks so good.
With interesting themes, a compelling story, and a creeping sense of dread, The Medium is a mature and atmospheric experience that I really enjoyed playing.
It’s a major evolution for Bloober Team, building on elements from their earlier games and making bold new strides in other areas. After Observer: System Redux, I was excited to play The Medium. Now I genuinely can’t wait for what they do next. Let’s see where it truly all ends.
[A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes]