If video games had the horror-movie equivalent of “Masters of Horror,” then the Polish-based Bloober Team is making its case to join the club. In only five years, they’ve developed the impressive Layers of Fear series, helmed the video game adaptation of the Blair Witch IP and tackled sci-fi horror in space with Observation. Add a couple cameos from genre legends like Rutger Hauer and Tony Todd, and yeah, you get the point. But sometimes our heroes disappoint us. Can Bloober keep the momentum going? Does The Medium add to the legacy? Or is this Bloober’s Ghosts of Mars? No offense, Mr. Carpenter. The Medium is Bloober Team’s most ambitious project to date; it’s both an homage to the third-person classics of the 90’s and its own progressive split-screen multi-dimensional monster. I’m all for it. But you might not be.
The Medium tells the story of Marianne, its titular heroine, as she grieves the loss of her adoptive funeral-director father and gets sucked into the mystery of her upbringing when an unexpected phone call sends her deep into the Polish woods. It is clear from the start that Marianne can communicate with the dead, but these aren’t your white-sheet spooky ghosts, Marianne’s psyche is split between the material world and the spirit world. The camera split-screens between two stunning dimensions to tell its story, with the player assuming control of one or both Marianne’s simultaneously. Marianne’s destination is the most physically powerful place she’s ever experienced. With the help of child-ghost Sadness, Marianne must confront her past to elude the horrific villain The Maw and escape with her life.
While the story is gripping to start, it suffers from bloat in the middle that impacts the overall impression it makes. This is a challenging balancing act from a story-telling perspective, especially in a medium with gamer’s expecting many hours for a triple-A price tag. The six to eight hour run-time will make some gamer’s feel slighted and others rolling their eyes. The overall visual experience, however, is so powerful, exciting, and scary, that The Medium deserves enormous praise. Hats off to Bloober for creating two fully-fleshed out (sometimes literally) worlds that are so full of detail you want to just stop periodically to drink it all in. The art direction alone is worth experiencing. The character design is also top-notch. The Maw is a Guillermo Del Toro nightmare that stalks Marianne through the compound, with incredible voice-acting that makes your skin crawl as it cries out in the dark.
A design choice as bold as multiple dimensions captured via split-screen requires some deft gameplay mechanics to feel smooth, and Bloober accomplishes this with some mixed results. Often, the player is not able to choose when the spiritual world collides with the material, which does make sense from a storytelling standpoint, but sometimes feels random rather than intuitive. Another “feature” that can feel more like a hindrance is the camera. Bloober chose what could best be described as a dynamic, static camera. The idea is to capture a cinematic experience. Gone are old-school tank controls, but the suddenly shifting camera can be jarring when a big critter is chasing you down a tight corridor. Speaking of tight-corridors, there is very little in the way of exploration and the term “walking-simulator” does apply to certain segments in the middle of the game.=
Overall, The Medium receives a hesitant recommendation. The visuals are thrilling, exciting and scary. The characters and voice-acting are haunting. It’s an experience worth taking if you’re excited about unique horror storytelling. What it’s not is a big game with exploration or replay ability.