The Medium Review — An Imbalance
Despite its technical prowess and stunning visuals, The Medium is a drag. From slow, uninteresting gameplay to a confusing and poorly executed story, Bloober Team's latest makes for a good tech demo, but not much else.
There are very few things in gaming that feel truly seamless. Yanking my Nintendo Switch out of its dock to play Breath of the Wild for the first time was the last time I was blown away by something that just worked. After months of Microsoft swearing up and down that their SSD and Velocity architecture would deliver new, seamless experiences devoid of load times, it’s a shame that The Medium didn’t launch with the Xbox Series S|X. It’s a flawless proof of concept that feels more like an interesting, drawn-out tech demo than anything else.
Switching between realities is blazing fast. Its environments are stunning and moody. Its lighting is incredible. The sound design is downright spine-tingling. I wish I could say anything equally positive about the gameplay or story.
Set in Poland in 1999 in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Polish Solidarity Movement, The Medium’s narrative tends to bite off more than it can chew as it tries to weave a web of political intrigue into the supernatural plot. Without context for Polish politics and history, a lot of details might fly over players’ heads unless they take the time to read every collectible letter and postcard scattered throughout the game world.
Even with that context, I often felt lost. That’s not just because of the complexity of late 20th Century Polish politics, either. The story has a simple enough setup: the protagonist, Marianne, has unique powers that allow her to cross over to another plane of existence. She uses these powers to help stranded souls pass through to the afterlife.
Almost immediately after this is established, The Medium dives right into referencing and relying on Polish history in a sloppy and confusing way. The writing in itself isn’t necessarily as bumbling as some of the plot points that it tries to establish, but that’s not to say it’s good.
Outside of a few moments, the dialogue feels behind the times in a lot of ways. It’s easy to tell that even the voice actors didn’t really know what to do with the scripts they were given.
Moments where Marianne talks to herself should serve as opportunities to break the tension or give her more character. Instead, they almost always boil down to a variation of the same thing. It got old quickly.
Control’s Jesse Faden immediately comes to mind as a contrast. Her narration and interjections are always suggestive of a bizarre, but fully fleshed-out character. Marianne is an attempt at the same type of protagonist; however, she comes out written like a Gears of War character without the tongue-in-cheek nature of the Gears franchise. While side characters provide brief opportunities for Marianne to shine, they tend to be poorly-written and detract from Marianne’s development with distractingly confusing writing.
That feeling of confusion carried over into the game’s sloppy puzzle design. Every once in a while, I found a genuinely good puzzle. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten the puzzles were simple, infuriating, or both.
One of the game’s central mechanics functions as a hint mode of sorts. You can hold down a button to reveal hidden objects, paths to follow, or other objects to interact with. In theory, this sounds like it makes sense as a mechanic. The problem is that there are a lot of instances where you need to interact with things without using the ability first in order to progress. Thus, a lot of the game’s ‘puzzles’ are just repetitive segments that devolved into looking in a drawer twice for a doll that I need to put on a table in the next room. While these simpler puzzles certainly have a place, building an entire game off of them makes it a snoozefest.
It doesn’t help that moving around in the world of The Medium isn’t enjoyable. It wears its Silent Hill inspiration on its sleeve with its locked camera. The rigid, cinematic angles really let the game’s environments shine. That said, it’s a detriment to the actual gameplay. I found myself getting stuck behind objects that I could hardly see and totally missing doors and items because the camera obscured them.
Speaking of things I couldn’t see, there are multiple extended stealth sections against an enemy that was essentially invisible. Each section does a good job of giving you cover to hide behind. However, more often than not, I found myself being set back as much as five minutes because the invisible enemy I was hiding from got me.
Stealth sections are usually bookended by dynamic and kinetic chase sequences. While they’re usually just running in one direction and occasionally dodging any obstacles in the way, they serve a greater purpose. Outside the occasional jump scare, they were what got my heart pumping the most. It was the most game-like and action-packed The Medium ever got.
Seeing a terrifying beast hot on my heels as I stumble through moody, lush forests and the atmospheric, bleak spirit world was a culmination of everything I’d hoped the game would be. Coming out of the chases reminded me of how disappointed I was in the rest of the game, no matter how impressive it looked.
You might notice that I haven’t really talked about any of The Medium’s horror elements. That’s because it’s mostly not a successful take on the genre. There’s absolutely some fantastic imagery that I could attribute to horror. However, anything else that tries to fit in that genre is few and far between. The game tries to build suspense, but it rarely offers any payoff.
Were it a shorter, tighter experience that came in, showed off its impressive technical accomplishments, and got out, I’d be much more impressed by everything The Medium has to offer. Instead, a drawn-out, confused narrative and largely boring gameplay left this game feeling like a slog. The disconnect between its presentation and everything else is so painfully stark that I can’t help but be disappointed by the first major Xbox exclusive of the year.