The Past Is Dead, But Not Done
HIGH Confronting the Childeater.
LOW The final confrontation has bad timing.
WTF The return of Agent Bolt Cutters.
The Medium makes no effort to disguise how bleak its story is going to get. It opens with a vision of a girl being shot next to a lake, and the first task the player is asked to do when given control of Marianne, the main character, is to prepare a body for burial at the funeral home she lives above — and that’s just the first ten minutes.
An aspirant to the long-dormant Silent Hill legacy, The Medium asks players to uncover the secrets of Marianne’s past while stopping the plans of a monstrously evil spirit that wants carnage and chaos. Her journey is both assisted and complicated by her unique ability to exist in the material and spiritual worlds simultaneously. This ability is the basis for The Medium‘s signature visual effect — showing Marianne’s actions in two different worlds simultaneously via splitscreen.
It’s a stunning effect that could only work effectively with a third-person camera, which probably explains why Bloober Team (known primarily for first-person horror titles like Observer and Blair Witch) made the switch, and it’s difficult to overstate how effective this choice is.
Whenever Marianne encounters something supernatural, the screen splits horizontally (or vertically) with Marianne on one side in the real world, and a white-haired version of her in the spirit realm. It’s a clear analog to the way the real world tears away to reveal its horrific mirror image in Silent Hill, but by keeping one foot in the physical realm, The Medium creates its own identity and keeps the focus on how people’s inner lives can have concrete effects on real-world behavior.
On a mechanical level, this dual-world system provides a fantastic framework for puzzles. While a door may be locked in the real world, Marianne’s spirit form can bypass it and explore the spirit version of the same room and use her ghost form’s ability to interfere with electrical charges to open doors and power up machinery. The physical Marianne is just as capable at helping her spirit version — throughout the real world are energy sources that can feed ghostly Marianne the power she needs to defend herself from enemies.
Speaking of puzzles, I commend The Medium for avoiding overly-complex or arbitrary brain-teasers — everything is tied directly to learning more about the narrative or traversing believably-dilapidated locations.
The adventure is largely set within a crumbling Soviet-era resort, and the developers get a huge amount of mileage by depicting the rotting building as ominously as the dusty, windblown otherworld version is. Instead of the bloody pianos and elaborate riddles one might find in Silent Hill, Marianne has to slowly work her way through the collapsed floors and burned rooms of the hotel. The developers make an effort to ground things as much as possible, keeping threats relatable and letting the player learn about the story by observing the world.
The greatest example of this is a 90-minute quest to find a bolt cutter so that Marianne can open a set of double doors. At first I was confused and annoyed by such an obvious solution and then having it pulled away again and again, but the developers knew exactly what they were doing. What starts as a task to locate a tool takes players on a journey through the resort’s tragic history, introducing them to the important characters and hinting at the terrible things that happened there. I found myself sucked into the story without even realizing it.
So, about that story – I cannot stress enough how bleak it is.
While the details of how Marianne’s powers work are fascinating and the opportunity to look into the minds of other characters is well-handled, at its core this is a story about child abuse. Nearly every character is the product of shattering childhood trauma, and much of it is depicted it in horrifying detail. The Medium has a clear theme — people create monsters by abusing children — and it hammers it home time and again until the player is battered into submission. This isn’t a subtle game, but it is a powerful one.
Changing gears, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention what an accomplishment the visuals are. In many ways The Medium presents itself as the spiritual successor to the European point-and-click adventure games of the ’90s and ’00s, only now the incredibly detailed static backdrops of those periods have been replaced with fully-3D environments that can be explored in realtime. The camera cannot be manipulated — the devs prefer to implement tracking shots and swooping camera moves to focus players’ attention on important details — but what’s on display is a magnificent visual feast. The spirit world areas are particularly impressive and offer inspiration drawn from underwater life to create alien vistas.
While so much of The Medium is excellent, it does have a minor issue in that the action and stealth sequences aren’t always smooth. Whenever Marianne has to slowly move past an enemy, it’s difficult to figure out where those creatures are looking, or exactly what will draw their attention. Likewise, a few of the chase sequences proved frustrating due to a lack of appropriately flagging the direction dangers will pop up from, forcing a bunch of restarts. I was able to muddle through the action-focused scenes without too much trouble, but they’re not a strong point.
Overall, The Medium is a fantastic experience. It’s a troubling, emotional, and wrenching nightmare packed into a compact running time, and while its ending may be a little too ambiguous for some, I’m happy to say that The Medium offers a dark mystery that is absolutely worth solving.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Bloober Team. It is currently available on XBX/S and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on PC. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Violence, Blood, Sexual Themes, Use of Tobacco, and Strong Language. It’s a game about child abuse, don’t let kids near this without close supervision. Also, it has some fairly severe flashing and strobing effects, so if you’re at all photosensitive, be very careful.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers the most customizable subtitles I’ve ever encountered. Players can change the size, assign different colours to different characters, and even put nametags on the subtitles. I played a portion of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. I find this game to be fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.