Product Reviews

‘The Medium’ Doesn’t Live Up to Its Best Ideas

Playing The Medium, a new horror game on Xbox and PC from developer Bloober Team, is like watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix. The Medium has some fun ideas that it executes well, but the overall experience is bland and forgettable. It’s not bad, but it’s not good. Like Sabrina and a thousand other shows on Netflix, The Medium is inoffensive. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time, but you probably won’t finish it and you won’t remember it a month after you put it down. It’s the perfect game for Xbox’s Game Pass, the service that seeks to be Netflix but for video games.

The Medium is a third-person adventure game that follows Marianne, a medium able to communicate with the dead, as she navigates both the spirit world and an abandoned Soviet-era resort in Poland. Marianne travels to the spirit world to solve puzzles, avoid monsters, and help the dead move on to what comes next.

In gameplay terms, this has Marianne picking up objects to listen to audio logs that fill in the game’s backstory, absorbing spirit energy from light wells that allow her to fend off enemies, and using mirrors to cross over to the other side, the spirit world. At times I felt like I was playing an adventure game from 1995; think Grim Fandango. Leaving an area meant retreading old ground, looking for an object I hadn’t clicked on that would lead me to the next part of the adventure.

One of The Medium’s gameplay gimmicks is that Marianne can, at times, exist in both the spirit world and the real world simultaneously. This leads to moments where the screen is literally split and the player must navigate both worlds at the same time. Sometimes solving a puzzle in one will open a path forward in the other and vice versa. At one point, a balcony is destroyed in the real world but present in the spirit realm, and I used Marianne’s abilities to traverse the spirit world while leaving her body behind. It’s a cool effect that creates neat set pieces, but also tends to tank the game’s performance.

I played The Medium on an Xbox Series X and performance was spotty. The Series X is a powerhouse and the only system that can run Hitman 3 at its full 4K resolution, but it often chugged while playing The Medium. It’s a beautiful game with a strong sense of style. The Niwa worker’s resort is a great setting with a spooky mood. The spirit world invokes both Silent Hill and the work of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. But when the frame hitches and Marianne stutters across the screen, it breaks the spell The Medium is attempting to cast. It happened frequently, but not quite enough to feel like the game is broken.

The technical glitches highlight what makes The Medium so frustrating. There’s a lot of promise here, but it’s hampered by technical issues, poor execution, and bad writing. The Niwa worker’s resort is a unique setting. Poland and other former Eastern bloc countries are littered with abandoned vacation hotels built during the Communist era. Imagined as worker’s paradises, a place for normal people to vacation, they often became de-facto playgrounds for the party elite.

Niwa is also built on the ruins of a World War II–era fort. An early gravestone outside the hotel commemorates the dead of the area who were often, “buried where they fell and became part of the land.” Poland, during World War II, is called the Blood Lands. It was an area trapped between Hitler and Stalin and purged by both sides. It’s unfortunate that such a rich and fascinating setting for a horror game becomes the background of The Medium and not its focus.

 

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