‘The Medium’ Delivers Above Average Thrills (Video Game Review)

The survival horror genre receives a welcome new potential franchise with Blooper Team’s old school fixed camera third-person tale, The Medium. Fans of Resident Evil would be as silly as not using ink ribbons on Hardcore mode to not take this journey to a new place, with a new character, and best of all, a new way to play while they wait for the release of Resident Evil: Village in May. Why? Well, beyond being a solid scare-fest, it’s also free if you own GamePass for your Xbox Series X/S or PC. The only downside is that it is only for Series X/S and PC (Meaning no Playstation or last-gen Xbox versions). Could this have been ported to lower-powered consoles? Maybe, but that’s a question the Polish developer seemed wise not to answer considering CD Project Red’s not-so-great launch of that cyberpunky game starring Keanu Reeves last month. Unease and a good mystery await, so hit X to enter The Further, The Upside Down, or wherever our hero Marianne (voiced by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) goes that has serious creepy rusted Silent Hill vibes.

Opening in a quiet but tense funeral parlor, Marianne’s only goal is to prep her late adoptive father for service. Exploration is key here as Blooper Team gets players used to playing with a fixed camera for the first time ages. This means a stunning but cramped feeling of being watched yet also being utterly alone in an apartment that houses Marianne, a hungry cat (feed it for an achievement!), and not much else. (Fun trivia: the apartment is the same one used in Blooper Team’s cyberpunk first person adventure Observer.)  The old man has passed away, and growing up in the family business means Marianne is comfortable living in a building where the basement has her mentor on a cold metallic slab. There is something else here though…

At its heart, this is a third-person psychological horror game in which Marianne investigates the death of a little girl, meets her (called Saddness in the spirit realm but is not like the character in Pixar’s Inside Out at all) and knows how to deal with such loss because she can, as the title alludes, commune with the dead. As anyone who has seen Jennifer Love Hewitt’s series, The Ghost Whisperer, can attest (yeah, I watched it, don’t judge me), that line of communication is rarely intentional and most often not two-way. Marianne could be looking at a bouncy ball and be suddenly split (literally) into two realms: the living and the dead.

The game’s hook is that large portions involve players navigating a split-screen (both vertical and horizontal) to solve puzzles and avoid a disturbing slender man-like creature (voiced by The Last of Us‘ Joel, er, Troy Baker). While the ray-tracing and overall look of the game is crisp and creepy, I assume the reason this is not playable on last-gen is the split-screen. Controlling two characters at once takes some getting used to, and I would guess, is pretty taxing on the GPU.

Is it nothing more than a gimmick, or is it worth it? It’s more the latter. Based on the trailers, I was a bit skeptical but having played about ten hours, I’d say this Silent Hill meets Alan Wake concoction has birthed something new. It’s not perfect but is any first-time survival horror outing? There’s a reason the sequels of Resident Evil and Silent Hill are the favorites, after all. Horror games tend to have steep learning curves as to what is fun and what just grates as trial and error.

That last feature is the most mundane aspect of The Medium. Each level is basically controlling Marianne in the real world, the spirit, and both to find energy wells (to defeat baddies), open doors, and put restless spirits down. Full length mirrors are the gateway between worlds. Sometimes Marrianne can access something real like, say, a flower, and other times, she’ll need to grab a mask that represents a lost soul. It’s a formula that works but there are definitely moments where I got lost as to what to do next with only the generic “find a bolt cutter” as a hint. Side note: are bolt cutters always painted red in real life? Just asking…

Still, the atmosphere and the terrific voice acting by the cast sells it. I loved pretty much all of Marianne’s internal dialogue going on inside her head. In a dark and depressing world (though not really that gory considering the genre), there’s also an ample amount of humor.

So about that whole fixed camera thing…

Remember all those old Resident Evil games that had static backgrounds that a heavily pixelated Jill Valentine would traverse? Back in the late 90s, there were hardware limitations to consider, so “painted” backdrops of dining room made sense. Still, for the newly burgeoning survival horror game, it provided players with a sense of claustrophobia. As a result, limited space and resources have become the hallmark of the genre.

Obviously, in 2021 the graphics are fully rendered in 3D for The Medium, and with new hardware like a Series X, ray-tracing allows for sharp reflections from dirty glass and the playful droplets of rain in puddles. On my OLED, I did have a little bit of an issue finding the right balance between rich blacks versus washed out but bright enough so I can see where I’m going, but for the most part, the art direction of the main setting, an abandoned Eastern European building, is pretty memorable.

The Medium is a solid start to the new year. If this was a full-priced title, I would say it’s for diehard horror fans only, but it’s free if you own GamePass, so I fully endorse it. The time spent is not long (horror games never are), but I won’t soon forget it.

The Medium, which will launch on Thursday, Jan. 28, for Xbox Series X|S consoles and PC via Steam, Epic Games Store, and the Microsoft Store.

Note: Series X/S review code supplied by the publisher.

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