Polish developer Bloober Team has a niche and by god they’re comfortable in that niche! What is their particular focus? Horror, specifically of the spooky, psychological type.
In the past they’ve brought us the Blair Witch game, Observer (with the dearly missed Rutger Hauer) and the Layers of Fear games. Layers of Fear is probably the most direct comparison that can be drawn to 2021’s The Medium, with its focus on exploration, puzzle solving and tales of bad, bad things happening.
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In this game you play as Marianne, a medium, who has always had a connection with the land of the dead and often helps spirits move on to whatever lies beyond. Following the death of your foster father (no spoilers, this is literally the first few minutes of the game) you are contacted by a mysterious individual called Thomas, who claims to know what you are, and can offer you answers as to your past and your powers. Following his directions you trot yourself off to an abandoned Polish workers resort called Niwa, which is where the entirely-not-foreshadowing “Niwa massacre” took place and it swiftly becomes clear that many of the rumours about what went down here are not rumours at all. And that Marianne is going to have a hard time making it out of here with body and soul intact.
Taking inspiration from the works of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński, the ghostly sections of the games are drenched in reds and browns, the landscape a strange, decaying place of bones, ghosts and fungus that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. This also isn’t the first game to draw inspiration from his work. Released in 2018, Movie Games Lunarium brought us Lust for Darkness, which blended Lovecraftian-inspired horror themes with Beksiński’s distinctive art style.
The core conceit of The Medium is that much of it is played in split-screen, the player navigating in both the real world and the spirit world. By tapping into this spiritual other side, Marianne can navigate the many puzzles of the game, ranging from simple things like opening up blocked sections by carving through walls of human skin with a razor made of bone and sin (this game is so metal the soundtrack should be by Cannibal Corpse), collecting items to unlock a memory (this game’s version of the ubiquitous audio log) or even using your “spirit power” to power up machines in the real world. You are even able to completely leave your body to go into parts of the world where your human body simply can’t follow. The puzzles themselves mostly consist of looking around until you find hidden items and then returning them to the place they obviously need to go.
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Mechanically, the game plays very much like the old Resident Evil games from days of yore and that’s not entirely a good thing. The camera angles are fixed and the character moves with old fashioned tank controls. According to Bloober Team they were forced to take this approach as playtesters found navigating freely in both worlds led to confusion and even to motion sickness, but it leads to deaths in game that feel cheap. Sections of the game involve you running away from a boss who will insta-kill you if he grabs you and more than once I died because it wasn’t clear which way I had to go, or the camera angle suddenly shifted and I wasn’t ready for it. It’s a minor nitpick but it’s the kind of thing that can turn some players off.
The game’s soundtrack is a collaboration between Arkadiusz Reikowski (Kholat, Layers of Fear) and a name that might be familiar to long time horror fans – Akira Yamaoka. The man who brought us the soundtracks for the Silent Hill games (among many, many others). You can hear his distinctive style all over the place. The soundtrack is gloriously creepy and unnerving and is a delight to listen to outside of the game as well as within.
Speaking of sound, and speaking, what’s the voice acting like? It’s pretty decent. Troy Baker plays the voice of the main antagonist, an otherworldly monstrosity known as The Maw, and he’s downright creepy. Pleading, threatening, cajoling, whining, shifting from a timid whisper to a thundering, threatening roar, he’s all but unrecognisable and lends a real sense of menace to the character. Graham Vick provides the voice of Thomas and I could honestly just have an entire game dedicated to that character, please. He’s probably the most fascinating and complicated character here. No offence to Marianne, but Thomas is just better written. Marianne is voiced by Kelly Burke and her performance is… fine. It’s slightly hampered by the dead-eyed, mostly rigid facial animations of Marianne which is a shame as it makes it difficult to really connect to her as our main character.
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Mechanical problems and occasional cheap deaths aside, The Medium‘s story is the standout aspect here. It’s a dark, twisted, disturbing rollercoaster down into hell. It starts off fairly innocuous at first, but within the first hour or so it takes a sharp turn into a dark alley filled with death, monsters and secrets. It’s a journey we highly recommend you go along for but at the same time this game should probably come with a few trigger warnings for its content, as it touches more than once on issues of child abuse and violence that some people might find distressing. Just a heads up.
At time of writing this game is priced at a fairly reasonable £39.99 on Steam. If it was full triple-A price we might have a few reservations recommending you pick it up outside of a sale as it does feel a bit dated in places and it is a tad on the short side, my own full playthrough clicking in at a smidge over eight hours, but at this price point? Buy it. If you like horror, if you like a compelling story, if you’ve enjoyed anything put out by Bloober Team before, buy this game. Support this developer. They’ve earned it.
The Medium is out now from Bloober Team.