Under gaming, horror often becomes just another power fantasy in an industry lousy with them. One too many “psychological horror” games tend to devolve into shooting galleries or dodgy stealth sequences. The threat stops existing in your head and becomes a tangible monster that you pump full of enough bullets or run away from enough to “win”. As any focus test will show you, the average player loves power and hates to feel out of control.
That hasn’t stopped Bloober Team from trying, though. Since Layers of Fear, the developer has committed itself to bleak experiences that stick in your craw and stay there. First-person exploration is a hallmark of Bloober games, and the developer uses that perspective to put players in nightmarish scenarios that rob them of their agency throughout. But the studio’s latest, The Medium, does away with first-person and tries to accomplish the same thing with traditional fixed camera angles – more Silent Hill and Clock Tower, less Amnesia and Outlast.
Surprisingly, The Medium pulls you into the experience even more, despite the change in perspective. It’s handily Bloober’s most confident game yet. While I never got to see things through protagonist Marianne’s eyes, the game still dragged me down and smothered me with its stifling atmosphere. I often found myself tensed up and bracing for whatever Bloober had to show me next.
The Medium’s unnerving narrative burrows under your skin and stays there, keeping you in a state of discomfort from start to finish. Marianne is a spirit medium, and the game opens with her using that gift to send her adoptive father to the afterlife. Minutes after, she receives a mysterious phone call imploring her to visit Niwa, an abandoned government resort where a horrific massacre allegedly took place. Upon arrival, she’s accosted by the restless spirit of a dead child in a cracked porcelain mask. The luminescent lass introduces herself as Sadness, and as Marianne uncovers what happened to her, she finds out there might be something more to their meeting than mere coincidence.
To say much else about The Medium’s plot would be to spoil its best bits – its surprising mid-game twist, for instance – which I wouldn’t dream of doing. Andrzej Mądrzak’s script is as terse and unrelenting as it is deeply sad, and manages to offer memorable scares while never sacrificing its humanity. In fact, Mądrzak’s focus on character over showing us the next scary monster is what elevates the game, as the narrative’s true horror lies in the evil human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. There are monsters, and their designs are all sublimely freaky, but what they represent is far scarier than a mouthful of fangs or oozing maw.
The Medium also isn’t afraid to tackle sensitive subjects, such as state-sanctioned torture and child sexual abuse, and routinely presents scenarios that will likely be triggering for many players.
None of this ever feels exploitative or excessive thanks to Marianne herself. The heroine is a beacon of light in The Medium’s dark landscapes, as her sarcastic asides and cheeky observations lend a glib joy to what’s otherwise an upsetting experience. She’s a realistic depiction of trauma in that she has a personality beyond being hurt, and her use of meds to cope with that hurt is never presented in a way that stigmatizes mental illness. Marianne’s actress, Kelly Burke, is put in a position where her performance could make or break the game, as so much of the script’s weight is placed on being endeared to her character. She nails it, though, and sells Marianne with one of the most charming, grounded lead female performances in gaming to date.
Related: The Medium Continues To Terrify And Confuse Me With Its Live Action Trailer (But Mostly Terrifies Me)
In a similar vein, Bloober also manages to sell players on a dicey mechanical concept: those fixed camera angles. The decidedly old-school approach is a pretty bold choice in 2020, as the practice fell out of vogue sometime in the mid-aughts. But The Medium is a compelling argument for more developers to make use of them, as they only serve to elevate the experience throughout. Every shot is deliberate and every set-piece is framed exactly how the developers envisioned, which lends a filmic flair to the production. There’s no room for players to fuss with the camera and miss important details, and in a game like this, that’s important. You’ll want to pick up every scrap of exposition, especially in the last two areas, and the camera naturally guides you to almost every single one. The camera also helps to make situations like solving puzzles or outrunning monsters less frustrating than they can be in other horror titles, as you have a clear bead on everything thanks to the cinematography. With no combat to break up the flow, either, there’s ample opportunity to soak in and appreciate the artistry of each shot. Fixed camera angles have always been an inherently good design choice, and The Medium handily proves that throughout by using them in effective and interesting ways.
It’s a good thing, too, because the game itself is a stunner. The Medium makes better use of its hardware than any other game I’ve played on my Series X, cooking up a sumptuous visual feast with no noticeable hits to performance or gameplay. Both the real-world Niwa and the spirit world are vibrant, dangerous places that feel alive thanks to distinctive art design, memorable set-pieces, and the raw graphical horsepower of the Xbox bringing them all to life. That technical witchcraft works in tandem with the purposeful cinematography, offering a collage of jaw-dropping and ornate screens for you to gawp at. The Medium is an astonishing work of aesthetic beauty, in both presentation and performance, and one of the rare examples of big-budget visuals helping games instead of hurting them.
This applies to the sound design, too, which is Bloober’s historical strong point. The game’s real-world segments are scored by longtime collaborator Arkadiusz Reikowski, while the spirit realm is covered by the acclaimed Akira Yamaoka. Both composers do an excellent job bringing their respective portions of the game to life, with neither really outdoing each other at any point. Reikowski brings more traditional instrumentation into the mix, which gives Niwa an extra bit of tangibility and grounds it as a place that feels real. Yamaoka, on the other hand, delivers his signature cacophony of cool synths and dirty beats that manage to capture the ruined, otherworldly beauty of the spirit realm. Each composer has an inherent understanding of their respective part of the game, and the result is a one-two punch of a score that never hits a flat note.
In fact, The Medium itself never hits a flat note. I beat the game in two long sittings, and there was never a point during either that I felt like the game dragged, or could’ve used a little more polish, or left too many loose ends hanging. It’s a lean, compelling experience that says what it has to say, then leaves you to grapple with the specifics afterwards. There are images, lines, and ideas from The Medium that I’ll likely take to my grave thanks to this approach, as it puts the onus on the player to piece everything together. You have to wrap your brain around the spirit world’s twisted logic so much that it becomes a part of you, as you live through Marianne’s pain with her and help to navigate her trauma.
Much like Marianne’s past, don’t expect The Medium to leave your head any time soon.
An Xbox Series X copy of The Medium was provided to TheGamer for this review. The Medium will be available on January 28 for Xbox Series X and PC.
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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.
She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.
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