A haunted Soviet workers’ town deep in the woods of Krakow. A protagonist who can not only talk to the dead, but literally walks through their world. And a ten foot tall demon who wants to wear your skin (and won’t shut up). The medium is very scary.
But it’s not just about scary things, it’s also about how developer Bloober Team introduces and handles them. Comparisons with Silent Hill have haunted the Polish studio since their debut Layers of Fear, and they’re even harder to shake in The Medium. The abandoned Niwa Holiday Complex isn’t shrouded in fog, but the Bloober team’s approach to horror is guided by atmosphere, suspense, and a disturbing soundtrack. Oh, and fixed camera angles.
You play as Marianne, an undertaker who is haunted by the visions of a dead girl at a lake. At the start of the game, you receive a phone call inviting you to Niwa from someone who claims to understand your visions. The resort itself is Soviet consolation porn: a brutalist block of concrete and faded size. As you step into the lobby, you encounter a ghost called Sadness, who leads Marianne to step into an undead world, heavily inspired by the surrealist art of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński.
Again, other worlds are nothing new, but the way The Medium deals with them is unique. Whenever you encounter the spirit world, the screen splits horizontally or vertically in two, and Marianne moves in both worlds at the same time. The spirit world is more or less the same as the real one, although some paths will only be accessible in one world or another. Sometimes you need to use some mental powers, like a shield to repel moths or a burst of energy that can power generators, but everything is a bit rudimentary as far as the puzzle mechanics go. Most of the time, the two realities just mean that the same space is analyzed twice for clues. This can be quite frustrating when, like me, years of couch collaborations have trained your brain to focus on only one side of the screen.
While the spirit world is based on Beksiński’s art, it must be said that it does little more than ape his nightmarish visions. Some key pieces are downright mimicked in the game, but most of the settings in the spirit world borrow Beksiński’s aesthetic without really capturing the sheer desolation or decay of his barren worlds.
Most of the time, the two realities just mean that the same space is analyzed twice for clues
The dual reality mechanic creates some memorable moments, especially while rummaging through the remains of a burned down family home. In reality, Marianne searches for jewelry in charcoal, while in the spirit world the house is still made of flesh and bones. When Marianne brings objects from the house back to their correct place, she opens portals between the rooms for her counterpart to the spirit world. The sight of such an intimate environment, which in one world is in ruins and in the other has been reconstructed from skin and agony, leaves a lasting impression.
That trans-dimensional tourism aside, the rest of The Medium spends collecting clues, exploring the resort, and piecing together the fragmented history of the hotel’s decline.
Whether trying to be cinematic or a nod to the tanky controls of the horror games of the 90s, just walking around is a shame. Most of the time Marianne can only walk, occasionally she can jog, and every now and then you have to drag yourself onto a box. Everything happens at a snail’s pace. This isn’t overly boring if you come across clues regularly, but there are large sections in The Medium where you just jog over obstacles and work while a narrator simply reads the story to you. When you have just a tiny clue to venturing into a new area, being able to move around with just a gentle jog while browsing multiple rooms is a strenuous exercise.
Twice the performance
It turns out that rendering two worlds at the same time has a pretty strong impact on PC performance. Playing the medium on an RTX 2080 During the dual reality sections of the game, which make up roughly a third of the story, I was only able to get just under 30 fps at high graphics settings. The real problem, however, is that if you set the graphics preset to low, you get a very pixelated look. This can be reduced a bit with DLSS, but not every card can.
It takes a few hours before you actually encounter the demonic presence that has haunted Niwa’s halls, the Maw. This towering, winged creature appears only a few times in history, but each time it appears it will attract your full attention. First glance is pretty much all you actually see from the throat, but between the sewn-together flaps of skin, exposed throat, and copious pustules, you won’t soon forget it.
The throat follows Marianne between the two worlds, but can only be seen in the spirit world. Your only way to tell in real life is with your flashlight, which will blink faster the closer you get to the demon, resulting in some deliciously tense stealth sequences. A skin-crawling performance by Troy Baker ensures that the Maw always penetrates your conscience, even when you can’t see it, with twisted, excruciating vocals that sound like a pig squeaking into a bassoon.
This vocal performance is just part of a deeply disturbing soundscape in which none other than Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka can be seen, not to mention Arkadiusz Reikowski of the Bloober Team, whose scores for Observer, Blair Witch Project and Layers of Fear do a lot Deserve recognition.
All of this helps to maintain a constant, simmering tension for the duration of the story. The fact that the medium’s sluggish controls and repetitive puzzle mechanics detract little from its mysterious narrative is evidence of the Bloober team’s ability to create and maintain atmosphere. As you near the end of Marianne’s story you will definitely get tired of long climbing animations and long sections of just jogging, but her quest for the fate of Niwa got me excited pretty early on.
Connected: Here are the best story games for PC
When the credits rolled in I was happy, but unfortunately not much more. Good storytelling and a palpable atmosphere will get you across the finish line and leave some memorable moments behind, but the clunky gameplay makes reaching that point a chore rather than a joy on occasion, and it’s impossible to shake the feeling that more could be done with the dual reality mechanic and Beksiński’s work of art.
If all of this makes you curious, but doesn’t necessarily sell, then the good news is that The Medium is included as part of Game Pass for PC. However, if you’d rather buy the game on your own, you can download it from the Microsoft Store now.