It always takes a little bit of time for the big releases of the year to start ramping up. No one wants to release around the holiday period as you’re either going to get drown in the inevitable sales that everyone has or, even worse, you’ll get pushed aside for the games that were bought specifically to play during the holiday season. So it is around late February/early March we start to see some of the smaller indies and adventurous AAA developers testing the waters with…shall we say less run of the mill titles. Whilst I can’t be sure that this is the marketing strategy that Bloober Team went with for The Medium it certainly fits the trope I’ve come to expect this time of year: new, slightly left of center games looking to grab the attention of those who’ve grown bored with the games that they played over the holidays. For what it’s worth The Medium was a big creative risk for the developers and I think, for the most part, it pays off.
You play as Marianne who has always been different from everyone else. From a young age you had the ability to see another side of this world, one where spirits of the dead sometimes linger for a time before you help send them on their way. This, of course, didn’t make you any friends and saw you bounce from foster family to foster family as they struggled to come to terms with your gift. One man was able to see past that, an owner of a funeral home, and he became the foster dad you lived with from then on. However his time to pass on has come and the game begins with you preparing for his funeral. After a strange encounter at the funeral home you get a call from a man called Thomas who says he knows what you are and that he’ll meet you at a place called Niwa.
There’s some interesting choices and influences that have gone into the graphics of The Medium. For starters the idea of doing a split screen rendering of two different worlds in which your character can coexist means that you’re dealing with a kind of soft graphics cap right from the get go. Combine this with the heavy influences from other psychological horror games (most specifically the Resident Evil series) and the result you get is a game that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the PlayStation 3 back in the day. It’s mostly well done although there are a few places which are in dire need of optimisation as the framerate drops through the floor for no reason in particular. A more powerful PC might not even blink an eye at it, but it was quite jarring to go from a smooth 60 fps experience to a slideshow every so often.
The Medium is a psychological horror game very much in the same vein as the early Resident Evil series. This means that, for the most part, you’ll be spending your time wandering around a particular level, looking at items, picking things up and generally exploring the area so you can figure out how to progress to the next section. Unlike it’s inspiration though there aren’t ludicrously complex puzzles or intricately hidden secrets for you to uncover. Instead everything is pretty straightforward in nature and you’ll only ever be carrying a handful of items at any one time. This does mean it strays more towards the walking simulator genre at times but given the level of puzzles that are included I think it’s more apt to think of it as a basic psychological horror more than anything else.
To that end it accomplishes its goal quite well. The developers have done a great job of building tension throughout the game and avoided the use of cheap jump scares, using it only a single time. Again, harking back to the Resident Evil inspiration, a lot of that tension will come from a monster which you have no way of dealing with save but for running away from it. I’ll admit that I’m a little tired of that trope given that it seems every psychological horror developer thinks that’s the only way to actually make things challenging but I can’t deny it doesn’t make those encounters all the more tense because of it.
The puzzles are pretty basic, all of them solvable with things in the near vicinity. There is some reliance on tropes and general known mechanics but even for those new to this genre I don’t think you’ll struggle too much. I did consult a walkthrough guide a couple times when it wasn’t exactly clear why the way I was doing something wasn’t working, only to find I was either doing things out of order or I had completely missed something obvious that was staring me right in the face. This is one of the reasons why I’m a big advocate for using guides before the game really frustrates you as it can change an otherwise unpleasant experience into a really enjoyable one.
I do feel like there was more the team wanted to deliver in the game however they had to cut things short due to budget and time constraints. Some of the game’s elements which are hinted at early on in the piece, like the photo development, are only used once more in the game. I think they managed to deliver what they wanted to in terms of story but it definitely feels like there was another additional layer to the game that they wanted to add but were unable to. That being said, given the success they’ve managed with this one, I’m sure that they’ll be more able to fully realise their vision with subsequent titles.
I also mention that because it’s clear that the game could also have used a few more rounds of optimisation to smooth out some of the game’s more obvious rough edges. The performance issues are definitely worth calling out as given this has only been released on PC and Xbox Series One X/S there shouldn’t be too many more things they need to tweak to not have those precipitous drops in framerate. Also, and while I admit this partly due to my stubborn refusal to use a game pad, the controls could be better done. They could also do away with the whole fixed camera thing, but that’s mostly just a preference of mine (and I get why they did it for this). Would it substantially change how the game plays? Not particularly, but it would go a good way to making it a little more enjoyable.
The story is kind of interesting, if a little overwrought in places. I’ll have to admit that my expectations for the game were widely out of place with the kind of game it is, so the first few hours had me trying to reconcile what I thought I was going to play with…what it actually is. Once I knew this was a kind of Resident Evil light I knew exactly what I was in for and things became a little more predictable. This is not to say that the story is bad, more that it probably takes too long getting to certain things when it’s clear what the outcome will be. The game could say a lot more in the time it takes to complete it if the pacing was a little more consistent. This is not to say I think there’s anything left unsaid here, although I would be interested to see how they’d tackle a sequel.
It would be easy to write off everything that The Medium does as just being a low budget version of Resident Evil but for Bloober Team I think it represents much more than that. To be sure there’s a lot of things that point to the lower budget nature of it but the core parts are solid and the inventive aspects (like the split screen, between two worlds thing) are certainly something I haven’t seen much of before. Is it this year’s first must play game? Not particularly but for those who enjoy the psychological horror genre I think there’s a lot to like in here.
The Medium is available on PC and Xbox Series One X/S right now for $75.95. Game was played on the PC with a total 6.3 hours play time and 82% of the achievements unlocked.