Reviewed on Xbox Series X – Also available on Xbox One and Xbox Series S
Fear can be a tricky thing to nail down. From a storytelling perspective, it’s more complicated than basic jump scares and grotesque slight of hand. In order to really scare people you’ve got to get inside their heads, and that’s exactly what independent Polish game developer Bloober Team has tried to do in their latest Xbox exclusive, The Medium. The basic selling point is a new gaming mechanic in which the player is occasionally required to control their character in two different spiritual “realms” at the same time. It’s a cool idea, novel in the sense that dedicated gaming consoles have never been powerful enough to render this kind of thing before, but it’s also a little bit gimicky, and that’s hard to ignore.
Whether it’s the stunning and seriously disturbed environments found in the land of the dead, the screaming, groping, crying, ever-present monster who shamelessly plagues you wherever you go, or the expertly revealed mystery of the murder of one lively little dead girl, the game is seriously invested in freaking you out. Does it do its job? For the most part, but there’s not a whole lot of basic modern scare tactics in use here that we haven’t seen before. The game’s narrative is anything but perfectly realized, and certain technical shortcomings hurt the overall experience, but The Medium is more than the sum of its parts. This could’ve been a huge disaster. It’s not though, even if it is the brand new system’s first and only true exclusive. Watch our video review for a good look at the game in action:
Our hero, the eponymous medium of this ghost story, is a young woman named Marianne. We never really get the sense she’s super experienced at this gig, because contextually speaking, she seems to be using many of her incredible abilities for the first time. First time having an out of body experience, first time getting stalked by a giant, faceless, pan-dimensional demon with a serious skin fetish. I mean it, there’s this frightening and freakish dude who follows you around for the entire second half of the game. No attacking, shooting, bludgeoning, or stabbing for you. The only way to win is to keep running and hiding. Can’t we get a moment’s peace?!
More or less The Medium’s shortcomings boil down to this: the camera is locked off in old-school Resident Evil fashion, making navigation cumbersome and awkward. Additionally, puzzles and quests are never as smart as you want them to be. The much-touted split-screen mechanic of simultaneously dwelling in both the world of the living and the land of the dead is unique and visually striking, but it seems to be limited to the use of passing arbitrarily administrated spiritual barriers, blasting demon bat thingies with an electric shield bubble, and slicing through large sheets of skin with a bone straight-razor.
And yes, a terse and limited story about shame, fear, death, and rage is continuously hampered by narration that tells more than it shows. Truly, the dialogue and voice acting try to keep pace with bigger games of the genre, but they never quite get there. It’s kind of a shame, because there’s lots of scary concepts and dark emotional undertones percolating just below the surface. Moments of sheer terror be damned, Resident Evil and other genre master series are capable of nailing gameplay AND story, so what’s the deal here?
The one thing that truly elevates the overall experience is the atmosphere, which is rich, dense, and undeniably disturbing. It’s hard to imagine The Medium pushes the powerful new Xbox hardware to its limits, but the launch release is plagued by framerate issues and other graphical kinks, so push the Xbox it must. Even so, dense forests and a haunted Polish resort hotel are handled with style in both the material and ghost realms. You’ll have a good time playing this game, especially if you’re a horror nut, but doubts will continue to linger as to whether or not you’ll remember it once you put it down.
Jeff’s Game Reviews gives The Medium a final score of SEVEN out of TEN.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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