‘The Medium’ review: a visual tour de force that never quite realises its narrative or gameplay potential

Microsoft’s first Xbox Series exclusive looks the part, but its storytelling still feels a generation behind

There’s always been an underdog charm to Bloober Team’s games. From its Dorian Gray-inspired debut Layers Of Fear to 2017’s spooky sci-fi neo-noir Observer, this indie studio has quietly established itself as gaming’s very own B movie horror house.

While Layers Of Fear’s mansion horror and Observer’s apartment-block-set mystery impressed, 2018’s larger-scale Blair Witch elicited more shrugs than screams. Now with the Xbox Series X|S exclusive The Medium, the scrappy Polish studio has finally made a AAA horror game – and it’s everything you’d expect from Bloober Team, for better and for worse.

Let’s start with ‘for better’, because The Medium is absolutely stunning. While Bloober hinted at its technical prowess with Blair Witch’s realistically rendered woodlands, for its Xbox Series exclusive, the studio has crafted its first large, intricately-detailed world. Yet with The Medium skipping last generation Xbox consoles, I was initially sceptical. Could this indie-made next-gen title really justify the Xbox One shun?

Within seconds of playing The Medium, however, those doubts fade away. This ghostly horror title features the best lighting I’ve ever seen in a video game. Thanks to said uncanny lighting and some seriously impressive texture work, everything from the tiled bathroom walls to lush forests look photorealistic.

The Medium
The Medium. Credit: Blooper Team

It’s hard to overstate what a graphical showcase The Medium really is. When I wasn’t running for my life, I found myself stopping mid-objective to gawp at Bloober’s stunningly-rendered locales. From the convincing glow of street lamps illuminating a cobbled path to the warm red hues of atmospheric lighting refracting across a living room wall, almost every locale is a feast for the eyes.

Still, flattering camera angles definitely help its case. Abandoning the first-person perspective for the first time in its career, Bloober Team instead opts for cameras locked to the environments, giving The Medium an OG Resident Evil feel. Combine this retro perspective with an incredibly familiar-looking inventory screen, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in for an old-school survival horror. Instead, The Medium shuns over the shoulder shooting to channel the spirit of classic Lucasarts adventure games.

Put in the shoes of orphan Marianne, a subdued prologue sees our protagonist roaming around her recently deceased foster father’s apartment, narrating the objects she finds around her. It’s a setup that hints at what’s to come, as for most of its duration, The Medium sees players mulling over objects, solving puzzles and, of course, crossing over to the realm of the dead.

The Medium’s visual fidelity is a feat that becomes all the more impressive once you arrive at a long-abandoned holiday resort and experience the other reason for its current-gen exclusivity – the split world mechanic. In a gaming first, Bloober team leverages the considerable power of Microsoft’s shiny new boxes to render two completely different worlds on screen simultaneously – the land of the living and the spirit realm. Like playing the loneliest co-op game imaginable, this split-screen presentation shows protagonist Marianne’s actions mirrored in both astral planes whenever you flick the analogue stick.

It’s a cool idea, and one that undoubtedly suits the game’s slow, considered pace. The problem is, for much of The Medium’s runtime, this clever mechanic goes to waste. Too often, these simultaneous split worlds are merely used as a repetitive puzzle device, having players harness grey-haired spirit realm Marianne in order to access areas that dark-haired human Marianne cannot.

As you begin to get acquainted with this mysteriously abandoned holiday resort, Marianne finds herself quickly befriending the trapped spirits within. It’s here that an Alan Wake-esque supernatural detective vibe begins to surface, complete with the game’s first consistent scare – it’s poorly written dialogue. Thanks to cringey monologues and clumsily composed pieces of in-game lore, like Blair Witch before it, Bloober Team’s interesting themes are swiftly overshadowed by jarringly cheesy dialogue.

Which leads us to the biggest problem with The Medium – most of the time, it simply isn’t scary. Despite its stunning environments, solid soundtrack and brilliant setup, it’s not until the halfway point that it actually delivers on any of its spooky potential. Once you eventually encounter The Medium’s lone monster, the little foreboding atmosphere that once simmered under the surface completely evaporates. Where chase scenes in the likes of Resident Evil 7 or Outlast had players holding their breath, for its first five hours The Medium’s equivalents merely have you rolling your eyes.

Luckily, things do eventually get a bit more hair-raising. Following that initially clunky chase scene, the scrappy Bloober Team of old slowly rears its terrifying head with evil spirits, dimly lit corridors and a drip feed of eyebrow-raising revelations. This new found tension can largely be attributed to an intriguing late game mirror-based mechanic. It’s in these sections that The Medium begins to find it’s ghostly groove. Just as the novelty of the two world puzzle solving begins to fade, from time to time, the safety of the living realm is left behind, and Marianne is forced to find answers in a darker world.

The Medium
The Medium. Credit: Blooper Team

Speaking of Marianne, you may notice that I’ve barely mentioned The Medium’s story – and that’s because it’s hard to know where to start. Quite simply, this meandering blend of overlapping historical trauma, trapped spirits and mysterious organisations all collide together to produce one of the most wildly inconsistent gaming narratives I’ve ever experienced. From dull, pedestrian beginnings to chaotic late-game collisions of characters and themes, towards the end of The Medium, there are a few beautiful moments where the madness clicks together.

At it’s best, The Medium’s wildly veering story feels like watching Hideo Kojima describe a crackpot psychological horror story while off his face on cocaine. Spirits! Nazis! Child abuse? …Communist demons! It’s largely hard to follow and hyperactive, but strangely compelling nonetheless. Combining time-hopping segments with explorations of genuinely harrowing mind palaces, in its rush towards its finale, themes and backstories begin to converge at a dizzying pace.

Once these erratic dots begin to rapidly connect, it’s hard not to find yourself oddly captivated by the bizarre tale unfolding in front of you. Yet, unfortunately, a thrilling conclusion is swiped from the player right at the finish line. Just as its narrative flirts with greatness, The Medium’s conclusion is dragged out too long, padded with the same filler monster chase sequences and tired puzzles even after many of the game’s mysteries have been solved.

The Medium
The Medium. Credit: Blooper Team

Bloober Team’s latest is a wild ride then, for better and for worse. Just as Marianne’s story wildly veers from the cheesy to the captivating, so too did my enjoyment of the game. There are undoubtedly moments of brilliance buried within Bloober team’s latest – where its slow-build horror finally pays off and its complex narrative layers suddenly align into something glorious.

But all too quickly, an inspired story section can fade into repetitive puzzling, or a promising scare gives way to a laboured chase scene. Still, every new console needs its eye-catching showcase and for new Xbox Series X owners, The Medium undoubtedly checks that box.

The Medium is now available on PC and Xbox Series X|S

The Verdict

Thanks to some clunky storytelling and repetitive gameplay, The Medium never quite hits the lofty highs that it skims so heartbreakingly close to. Yet for all its faults, The Medium is undeniably gorgeous, and for any new Xbox Series X|S owners who also have Game Pass, experiencing its visual splendor is a must.

Pros

  • One of the best-looking games we’ve ever seen
  • Rendering two worlds on screen simultaneously is a cool and impressive technical feat
  • Poor dialogue and a wildly inconsistent story prevent The Medium from reaching true greatness

Cons

  • Repetitive puzzle gameplay quickly grows old
  • Considering its creators, The Medium is disappointingly light on real scares
  • Poor dialogue and a wildly inconsistent story prevent The Medium from reaching true greatness

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