The Medium might not please those looking for jump scares or taut action. But if you’re seeking a persistently unnerving experience rather than shlocky frights, the game largely delivers.
Platform: PC, also on XBox Series S/X
Developer: Blooper Team
Publisher: Blooper Team SA
Release date: January 28th, 2021
Price: $49.99 via digital download, launch discount $44.99 through 2/4
Horror is often rooted in juxtaposition. Suburban spaces that habitually signal American contentment are overtaken by the grotesque in films like Halloween (1978), Poltergeist (1982), and It Follows (2014). Outside of these residential communities, the rustic outposts that typically serve as leisurely getaways have been bloodstained in everything from Jaws (1976) to the majority of the Friday the 13th series. Blooper Team (Layers of Fear, Blair Witch) seems to understand this approach exceedingly well.
Delve into the recent PC and Xbox Series S/X release of The Medium and you’ll be escorted to Blooper’s hometown of Krakow, albeit at the end of the 20th century. As lead character Marianne is preparing to put her adoptive father to rest, players are treated to an amazingly lifelike and striking beautiful depiction of the capital city.
Filled with Evocative Environments
A view from an apartment building highlights the meticulous rendering of the Grunwald Monument, a majestic real-life memorial. Soon after, we’re treated to the overhead perspective of passersby on the street. It’s a shot that wouldn’t be out of place for a top-tier European cinematographer like Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, American Psycho) or Ryszard Lenczewski (Ida).
Your stay in the busier parts of Krakow won’t last long however, with Marianne called to the Niwa resort, a derelict refuge beset by tragedy. The disparity between the heart of the city and a hotel is the heart of a forest isn’t the only contrast. Marianne has the ability to simultaneously perceive the living world and the spiritual realm. Here, The Medium employs a split-screen technique to render both worlds at the same time.
Coexistence Across Two Worlds
In the hands of a less accomplished or ambitious team, the system might have been gimmicky. But every time Marianne experiences a bout of dissonance, The Medium beguiles. Most of this stems from an art style inspired by surrealist painter Zdzisław Beksiński. When Marianne and Jack are reunited, the afterworld balances heartfelt a heartfelt hug with nightmarish imagery. Eerily, she’s alone of the other side of the screen, seemingly offering an irrational embrace.
This odd jumble of sentiments is rather common in The Medium and is far removed from the primitive jump scares often found in the genre. It also helps that Marianne is an interesting character. While some of dialog might seem like throwaway one-liners, you’ll gradually realize it’s a coping mechanism. As such, it’s hard to not empathize with the protagonist across the ten-hour trek.
A Single Unnerving Enemy
But sporadically, The Medium’s aspirations are restrained. The title adopts a more psychological unnerving atmosphere rather than the kind of weapon-based approach the Resident Evil series. But navigation feels remarkably similar to Capcom’s franchise, and moving through locations employs the same unnerving camera angles and slightly awkward control scheme of early entries. As such, when the scene shifts, you may feel momentary bouts of disorientation as you adjust to the change in perspective.
Pleasingly, The Medium doesn’t squander your time with unnecessary backtracking. The items that you’ll collect and combine are typically adjacent to their solutions, avoid the scourge of playtime padding as you wander about. Yes, linearity is often chastised in the genre, but here the streamlined approach is commendable. Another praiseworthy attribute is the inclusion of a button that can provide hints for you, doing things that illuminating ghostly footprints that indicate the way forward. Although there’s plenty of the usual interactions, with keys and handles to turn, much of the puzzling takes place across the game’s dual worlds, with differences often indicating something that should earn your scrutiny.
An Ominous Antagonist
Occasionally, you’ll encounter brief stealth sections. These are surprisingly tense, tasking Marianne with holding her breath. If you have a controller with vibration capacity, you can feel her accelerating heartbeat, adding another layer of intensity. You won’t confront the game’s villain directly, but that’s OK, as the antagonist is unnerving. Here, veteran voice actor Troy Baker delivers one of his best performances in recent memory, and if you play with headphones (as the developers suggest), the taunts and motion capture are relentlessly intimidating.
The Medium often feels like a big budget game. Occasionally, you’ll witness technological feats like fields of foliage where each plant sways in the wind independently. Sporadically, the game’s split-screen lets you adjust the field of view, as well. Sonically, Arkadiusz Reikowski and Akira Yamaoka’s compositions contribute menace, laying resonant piano plinks over brooding synth sweeps. Sadly, there’s no Polish voice over, and it always a bit weird to overhear the game’s character speaking English. On the upside, the game shy away from some of the conflicting ideologies of post-war Poland. If you’re not up on the context, a multitude of in-game artifacts help to provide insight.
If The Medium were a film, it would likely draw comparison to Robert Eggers’ (The Witch, The Lighthouse) works. Often brilliantly brooding, The Medium’s scares simmer rather than startle. The game’s absence of combat evokes a sense of vulnerability while the puzzles ensure its audience is attentive, and ready for the next bit of exposition to be revealed. This isn’t a game for everyone but if you appreciate fright that leans toward the cerebral, plan on visiting The Medium’s spirit world.
The Medium was played on PC with review code provided by the publisher.