I came into The Medium with my expectations set to ‘neutral’ and ended up finding myself surprisingly invested in its story and the mystery surrounding it’s cast.
The Medium is a psychological horror video game developed by Bloober Team. Bloober Team is a Polish studio known for titles such as Observer, Blair Witch and the Layers Of Fear games so, it’s fair to say, The Medium fits perfectly within the studio’s wheelhouse.
The game is Microsoft’s first high profile console exclusive since the Series X|S launched (thanks to the delay of Halo Infinite) but The Medium is also available on PC via XBOX, GOG, Steam and Epic.
If you are playing from within the XBOX ecosystem you also have the benefit of being able to play the game via Game Pass subscription. This is how I accessed the game and I played on Series X.
It’s when a game like this releases that Game Pass really shows it’s true value. I’ll be honest, I never would’ve dropped £35+ on a title like The Medium — horror titles just don’t interest me that much — but it was on Game Pass so I gave it go, and you know what? I enjoyed myself enough that next time Bloober Team drop a new game or some DLC, I’ll give that a go too.
But I digress…
Before we move onto to the gameplay, I just want to mention I’ll try my hardest not to spoil anything, but I’ll be describing situations and mechanics that could be considered spoilery…You’ve been warned.
The game begins in the residence of a loved one and you are tasked with searching the apartment for a couple of items before being allowed to leave. This first area acts as an introduction to the inventory system and the early mechanics of the game.
The first thing I was struck by when being dropped into The Medium was how dark yet beautiful the scenery was. The lighting was incredible and this game is a shining (sorry) example of how proper use of ray tracing can help create a believable and immersive environment. From the opening scene, it felt as if every piece of the set had been given meticulous attention to detail. I often found myself slowly strolling around taking in the landscape (and taking a ton of screenshot, as I tend to do) rather than briskly jogging to my next objective.
While navigating the world there’s a fixed camera that will automatically shift as you move out of view. I didn’t ever really adjust to fixed camera and was constantly trying to move it around with the right stick — for the majority of us this is just instinctual at this point, I guess — However, the camera is well implemented and there was never actually a need for me to be able to adjust my point of view. Also, for better or worse, the fixed camera is a classic trope from the golden age of PS1 horror titles such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dino Crisis and Dead Space. I appreciated the nod.
The inventory system is also a bit of a throwback. A simple grid of items that can be used independently or, in the rare case, combined with one another. I actually found the experience of using my inventory items to interact with the world to be unnecessarily laborious. For example, I find a wall of skin that I need to cut through (yep. Gross). OK cool, let's find something sharp. I find my something sharp and head back to the skin wall. My prompt is not then to cut the skin wall. Instead, I have to click on the skin wall to interact with it scroll up to the second point of interaction on the wall, open my inventory, select the sharp thing and then drag down to cut through. This isn’t immersive, it’s long-winded and breaks immersion. These interaction patterns only become more painful as the story proceeds. Some items you find require multiple inputs to use them, and this is particularly frustrating while you’re being chased by a monster. There’s a small chance Bloober Team have been intentionally trying to replicate the feeling of panic while fumbling to perform a task in a high-stress situation, but I doubt it. There would’ve been far more interesting ways to achieve this outside of frustrating me with their poor UX decisions while I’m trying to avoid having my soul ripped from my body.
Speaking of my soul being ripped from my body, if you’ve seen anything of the game since it’s announcement, I’m sure you’ll be aware of The Medium’s USP. At certain points in the story, you are able to jump between two parallel worlds and even navigate the world of the living and dead simultaneously. This mechanism is essential to both the game's gameplay as well as it’s narrative.
More often than not this works via split-screen and renders the two worlds at the same time. It’s like playing couch co-op on your own and serves as the foundation of The Medium’s puzzle sections. I actually really enjoyed the mechanic and found the light puzzling was enough to make me think, but never tough enough to frustrate me. There are also opportunities for your spirit-self to temporarily break away from your real-world-self. This out of body experience allows you to gain access to areas and devices that you’re reality-bound self doesn’t have access to.
Technically, the simultaneously rendered worlds are very impressive. There is a small drop in image quality when in both worlds. This is due to the resolution scaling down to allow for the extra processing required to render two separate environments side by side. The game seems to maintain 30fps regardless of how many worlds are on show but definitely doesn’t hold on to that native 4K resolution. At no point does The Medium ever look bad though. It’s a real looker.
The spirit world is, for the most part, where you will meet and speak to your supporting cast. It’s not a large cast but the characters are well fleshed out and have interesting stories. The character animation during cutscenes can feel a little wooden, especially in contrast to the epic scenery on show, but by no means would I consider it a detriment to the presentation of the game overall.
It’s in this world of spirits that you’ll also meet the game's main antagonist. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say they’re pretty creepy and I don’t like them — I guess that’s kind of the point though. You’ll run into him at various points in the game and these sections follow similar themes and gameplay mechanics each time. It’s during these points in the game that you’ll hit your highest levels of anxiety. Unfortunately, it’s due to the control system as opposed to the main villain.
Generally, the controls are fine for what the game is and the pace it moves at, but at the high-risk moments, they really don’t cut it. These scenarios usually depend on juggling mechanics such as sneaking, hiding, breath-holding and using your ‘instinct’ ability to keep an eye on where the scary bastard is. The button mapping used to activate these abilities, mixed with the clunky — but, I guess, traditional — survivor horror character moment and the aforementioned inventory system leads to some frustrating and (literally) soul-destroying moment that I feel would’ve been completely unavoidable had these systems been tweaked a little more.
I don’t want to sound overly negative though, these gripes I had were by no means dealbreakers. Not once did I feel like putting the game down. I actually ended up playing it through in one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The game was fairly short. It took me around 8–9 hours to complete it, which is a comparable number of hours to other high profile survival horror titles.
Overall the game delivers well on what it promises: an enjoyable multi-dimensional, but linear, romp through a haunted hotel. It’s also a great early example of what the next gen XBOX consoles are technically capable of. Again, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the level of care and attention that Bloober Team have put into this world they have created. It looked forward to diving deeper into it in the, hopefully not too distant, future.
And again — if you have Game Pass already, you may as well give it a go!