The Medium Review: Sluggish and Supernatural

With fixed cameras and the eeriest of atmospheres, Bloober Team’s The Medium carries some [...]

With fixed cameras and the eeriest of atmospheres, Bloober Team's The Medium carries some signature trademarks of classic horror games to set the foundation. Not content to rely on just its framework, however, it's got uniqueness of its own through the dual perspectives, split between spirit and human realms and a story that's engrossingly unsettling throughout. But even with those elements going for it, The Medium's tedious pacing, finicky puzzles, and a failure to build on its supernatural powers and abilities prevent it from excelling.

The Medium opens with a narration from our protagonist, Marianne, a medium who's deeply connected to the spirit realm and a shepherd for souls who can't pass on to their next destination. She's therefore quite intimate with – and some might even say numb to – most aspects of death, even when it deals with those close to her. Preparing for her adoptive father to pass on in both the human and spirit realms within the game's opening segments smartly establishes her mettle as well as her prowess when interacting with the supernatural.

The duality of these two opposing yet connected realms tops the list of the best things The Medium has going for it. To advance past obstacles such as a blown fuse box or to obtain an item that's out of reach, Marianne often explores both the spirit and human realm simultaneously. While it's initially disorienting to see your perspective shifted to split-screen, controlling both characters together in most situations quickly dissolves any uneasiness you may feel from seeing double, since the character's movements are in step with each other unless players fully go into one realm or the other. Finding clues or items in one realm and using them in the other is quite the fulfilling experience that makes you feel as though you're mastering a two-player game as one person by the time you familiarize yourself with the mechanic.

Neither the split realms nor the powers used within are always perfect, though. Marianne's movements are supposed to be mirrored so that players must control both versions of her at once while only shifting to the spirit realm entirely to open or explore otherwise blocked paths, but on more than one occasion, an apparent bug caused these versions of the medium to diverge from one another. While I walked forward with one, the other would simply run into a wall and would be totally absent from view when the camera's perspective shifted. Reloading the game was the only fix that isn't too demanding, but it totally crushed any sense of tension that's been built up.

Fixed cameras do no favors for this sort of gameplay either. While initially interesting, the stationary cameras, which shift upon progressing through rooms or into new ones, are a hindrance more often than not when controlling one version of Marianne, let alone when you're responsible for two. A slight buffer on your movement when facing a new direction prevents you from constantly walking in the wrong direction, but it's a largely disorienting experience trying to navigate these worlds through the fixed cameras.

You'll spend a lot of time trying to position Marianne just so in order to highlight a specific object or will end up bumping into objects galore. The latter issue is infinitely more frustrating during chases or segments that require any sense of urgency. Feelings of mounting dread built up during those moments often got overshadowed by frustration when battling with the unwavering cameras. Encounters with The Maw, a recurring, integral entity that must be avoided at all cost, are a two-part struggle against the creature itself and everything around you.

Marianne's story is a compelling one despite these setbacks, and it's made even better by the supporting cast around her. While most games fill their worlds with flavor text and relics from the past meant to be fun "aha!" moments, every clue in The Medium felt meaningful. It's easy and highly encouraged to get invested in Marianne's quest to piece together everything she finds around her, since the story's structure will test your predictions and reward those who dig deeper.

I do wish that Marianne's own powers grew with her, though, seeing how she constantly reminds players that the journey she's on is unlike anything she's ever seen before. The game gives players a base set of powers to start with and fails to build on those in any meaningful way, with players expected to simply use the right one in the appropriate situation throughout all the puzzles.

There's little room for deduction when the square block always goes in the square hole, resulting in many segments where it feels like you're going through the motions to advance the story. Even though The Medium only takes roughly 10 hours to complete, this sort of progression makes it feel like it's much longer, and if you play it like I did, you'll need a few breaks to step away from the periods of monotony.

The Medium certainly has a story worth telling, but the stop-and-go nature of the vehicle for the narrative may prevent some from fully exploring it. The Xbox Game Pass release seems like a smart route for the game because of that, and while I'm normally hesitant to experience games in this way, I feel like I would have enjoyed The Medium much more if I'd watched someone else play it.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Medium was reviewed on the Xbox Series X with a review code provided by the publisher.