Eerie comes when the familiar is combined with the incomprehensible. From the feeling that something that you have known your entire life in a certain form is suddenly no longer quite right. The pictures of the artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, who died in 2005 and whose nightmarish paintings are experiencing a small renaissance in the age of the Internet, strike exactly in this line. His works show naked bodies with a cruelly distorted anatomy or areas of land that show uncomfortable human shapes. His compatriots, the Polish Studio Bloober Team, now used these disturbing images as inspiration for the video game The Medium.
In The Medium we plunge into a world between life and death as ghost whisperers. Wherever there are trees or buildings in our eyes, the medium also sees the corresponding counterpart in the spirit world through its supernatural powers. Abstract, fleshy and distorted forms, vast, barren tracts of land and the constant wailing of souls who are denied entry into the hereafter fill this zone. Using a split screen, we can move around in both worlds at the same time and see directly what shape certain objects assume in the intermediate world. A cool visual trick and a clear highlight from The Medium, which is not stingy with unusual and amazingly detailed environmental design.
We experience our entry into the story and thus into the world of ghosts through a vision that our main character tells us about. At the beginning of the game, Marianne, the eponymous medium, works for her foster father Jack in a funeral home, where she guides the souls of the deceased, such as the ferryman Charon from Greek mythology, safely into the realm of the dead. When Jack dies after an operation and has to use her own services, it is the only person who has ever told Marianne about her gift. A short time later, when she receives a mysterious call from a man named Thomas who claims to know about her vision and can provide answers to her supernatural powers, she goes on a search for clues into the past …
Source: PC Games
With The Medium we experience a journey into the past in several ways. On the one hand, the plot of the game is set in Poland in the late 1990s and revolves around the processing of events even further back in the past, on the other hand, the Bloober team has obviously oriented itself in game design from a genre classic from that time: with a strong focus on narratives about gameplay and the In the absence of a combat mechanic, memories of the Silent Hill series are immediately awakened while playing, whose composer Akira Yamaoka also contributes the soundtrack for The Medium. The story, which deals with childhood trauma, sexual abuse and the creeping loss of mental health, among other things, goes in pleasantly dark directions and invites a comparison with the horror series.
Unfortunately, the parallels don't end with the positive influences: The core gameplay loop for a game from 2021 seems completely out of date. Anyone who has been using fuses, collecting notes, removing chains with bolt cutters or has sorely missed one key after the other in current horror titles should get their money's worth with The Medium. So the gameplay actually only consists of finding or opening the right way to the next room section by section. Even with a comparatively short playing time of eight to nine hours, this extremely conventional design philosophy strains your nerves after a short time.
Source: PC Games
Unfortunately, the sections where action is offered do not come up with particularly original ideas and in the worst case even cause real frustration. In the stealthy passages, in which all you have to do is press a button to crouch down or hold your breath and then hide behind a wall or box, you will either be through no fault of your own due to the limited areas and options discovers or recognizes the opponent's scripted route straight away, which takes away any horror. Even in sequences that involve running away from a monster, you actually only act according to the trial-and-error principle. This is particularly annoying because the death animation takes much too long if you fail and the automatic save points are not set as generously in these passages as in the rest of the game.
Other little things that disrupt immersion a little are, on the one hand, the use of invisible walls or knee-high obstacles that are supposed to prevent you from straying too far from the solution of a puzzle. On the other hand, in the last third you have to balance over various wooden planks. And once you have begun crossing in one direction, it cannot be changed, so you always have to maneuver to the other end, even if you only accidentally started the interaction by pressing the X button.
Source: PC Games
A story of different media
As already mentioned, the actual focus of The Medium is not on the gameplay, but on the narrative. The story, like most ghost stories, is about the sins of the past which are manifested in hauntings. In the orphaned former workers' hotel Niwa, where a large part of the story takes place, we bring forgotten, sometimes really abysmal incidents to light and fight both the dark forces that have emerged from them and Marianne's own demons. At our side is Sadness, the ghost of a little girl who gradually reveals to us how all the different storylines that unfold in the course of the game are interrelated.
You can tell that story and art design were prioritized in the development of the game and that a lot of heart and soul has gone into these areas. The fact that the team behind The Medium almost completely dispensed with annoying jumpscares underlines the impression that there were people at work here who primarily want to tell a story and who also trust it.
Unfortunately, despite the undoubtedly present and also quite commendable narrative ambitions, the start turns out to be bumpy – and the first few hours of play are quite boring. The really exciting revelations only begin after about four hours, which means that the task of drawing us into the story and arousing our curiosity lies solely with the characters and their dialogues. Unfortunately, this is where The Medium has significant weaknesses.
Source: PC Games
While Marianne primarily interacts with ghost girl Sadness in the cutscenes, we spend the rest of the time mostly alone with the protagonist. Since your character can best be summarized with the adjective "snappy", you can be prepared for the fact that finding objects, pressing switches or listening to messages from the spirit world is often accompanied by one of their casual sayings. Main characters with sardonic humor are by no means uncommon in the horror genre, but Marianne sometimes jumps so quickly between sincere emotionality and flippant attempts at comedy that it is difficult to gain access to the inner workings of the character. Her second quality, which she has in common with Thomas, who is also supernaturally gifted, is her habit of reacting to any kind of spooky with a string of strong expressions. The many fucks and shits are not necessarily inappropriate in the relevant situations, but the constant swearing also robs many potentially creepy encounters of their effect.
In connection with narrative-oriented video games, the word "cinematic" is often used as a quality feature. And also with The Medium there will certainly be one or the other publication that describes the history of the title with exactly this word. However, if the exact dialogues were actually brought to the big screen, The Medium would be laughed out of the hall before the first popcorn bag was emptied. That sounds harsh, but it is simply due to the fact that we are dealing with two different media in film and video games. In The Medium, the dialogues are primarily there to let players know what their next task is and how to accomplish it. This practicality is difficult to combine with natural-sounding conversations and subtle character drawings.
The actual story is also quite solid, only when staging individual scenes is often recourse to genre tropes. The first encounter with the ghost child mentioned is announced with an ominously rolling ball, Marianne is frightened twice at the sudden appearance of a house cat and a torture scene is accompanied by a psychopath – how could it be otherwise – with classical music. However, if you want, you can simply file these moments as a conscious homage. Even at the end of the story, which of course should not be revealed at this point, The Medium then unfortunately uses an annoying cliché that could leave some players unsatisfied. In addition, some characters, initially important, are painfully left behind by the narrative.
Source: PC Games
We already reported that The Medium makes heavy demands on the PC. The title, which appears for the computer and the Xbox Series X at the same time, needs a lot of graphics memory, especially due to the representation of two different environments in split-screen mode. The optics are really nice to look at. The areas mentioned above come up with strong lighting and many small details. Only with the character models and animations does The Medium seem more old-fashioned than next-gen.
Sometimes only a few facial features of our character move in conversations. And the rest of the facial expressions are rather limited. In some sequences, the faces in The Medium are less reminiscent of current titles such as Hellblade than more of a Heavy Rain for the Playstation 3. The bottom line is that the limited animations are not that important, since it is not a game with faster speeds anyway Action or long cut scenes.
More shadow than light
I really would have liked to have liked The Medium. Because here an adult story is told that fits the genre and comes up with a strong environment and sound design. Still, in the end I have to say that during my nine-hour session with the game, I was bored in front of the screen at least half the time. This is mainly due to the repetitive gameplay, but unfortunately also due to the clumsy staging. Small blemishes in the animation and in the design of various game elements also cloud the impression, so that I look back on The Medium as a highly frustrating experience. This is particularly painful because, as a player interested in stories and curiosities, I am willing to forgive a lot as long as I am interested in characters and plot or individual game elements. The deadly premonition, which is buggy and gameplay-technically ancient, is one of my favorites, as is the vampire, which can only be enjoyed through fan patches: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Because the story, which is solid for a video game, is neither really creepy nor with instantly captivating characters, let alone really breaks new ground, the undoubtedly existing potential of The Medium is not reflected in a positive gaming experience in the end.
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