The Xbox Series X’s biggest exclusive yet, The Medium, doesn’t quite live up to the hype this interdimensional horror game garnered heading up to its January 28 release.
It’s no secret that Microsoft’s new consoles launched without many compelling exclusives outside of fantastic indie games like Call of the Sea. But even that is also on Xbox One. The Medium from Layers of Fear developer Bloober Team is the first truly big-budget Xbox Series X exclusive. It’s also a true next-gen console exclusive.
The Medium is centered around the titular medium Marianne, who has the power to communicate with people in the Spirit World — and to explore it at will. But her investigative journey has her exploring the Spirit World and Material World in equal measure, sometimes at the same time.
She ventures to the mysterious and dilapidated Niwa Hotel to learn more about her powers, mysterious past, and a dream where she sees a young girl die. What unfolds is a horrific adventure involving both realms that evokes Silent Hill a great deal.
Thanks to the power of next-gen consoles, The Medium’s “Dual Reality” system lets players control Marianne in both worlds at once to explore and solve puzzles. In many ways, The Medium is an excellent next-gen showcase and an atmospheric horror game on par with Silent Hill.
However, The Medium falls short of greatness due to an overzealous script. Still, it’s worth giving a shot if you like horror and want to see what your next-gen console can do — especially because it’s free with a Game Pass subscription.
Show, Don’t Tell
The Medium tells an ambitious story despite a small scale. The story plays out in two worlds at once for most of the game, so ensuring that the plot functions in spite of that novel core concept is no easy feat. As far as the overall world design goes, Bloober Team absolutely delivers. The Niwa Hotel and its surrounding area look like your typical rundown horror setting, with impressive ray tracing to bring the environments to life.
Once you hop over to the Spirit World, this sepia-tinged dimension looks nothing like the traditional depictions of Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, but is instead an eerie realm inspired by the abstract and surrealist works of Zdzisław Beksiński. The style is just unsettling enough to make you uneasy, but it’s never overwhelming.
While the Niwa Hotel is (mostly) abandoned in the material world, Marianne comes across a mysterious little girl named Sadness in the Spirit World. Sadness helps Marianne learn more about a man named Thomas who seems to be in charge of the hotel. She even knows about Marianne’s mysterious dream where a young girl dies. And things only get eerier from there.
The Medium is a very personal thriller that almost never relies on jump scares; Instead, it leans into sinister overtones and a macabre atmosphere to freak you out. When the game weaponizes quiet to let the grave situation sink in, it’s that much more frightening, especially when it deals with disturbing subjects like child grooming or a massacre in the hotel.
The biggest drawback in The Medium is its tendency to over-explain. That, in turn, breaks the somber mood whenever it peaks. While its visual design is fantastic and detailed enough to get its point across through environmental storytelling, Marianne won’t stop talking for so much of the game.
She’ll walk into a room and tell you she feels “anger" or "fear” when it’s abundantly clear without the overused voice-over narration.
In the worst cases, she’ll crack jokes in some of the game’s most unsettling moments. The most immersion-breaking and confusing moment? When Marianne picks up some bolt cutters and says, “It kind of sounds like a spy name. Cutters, Bolt Cutters.” Mind you, she says this right outside of a room where several children were murdered. The tonal disconnect really detracts from the overall experience.
The script seems afraid of the dead air that The Medium leaves in some of its quiet moments, and wants to fill it with jokes or overly detailed descriptions of what’s happening. This comes to a head with the game’s ending, which cops out of giving a satisfying conclusion by cutting to black.
There is an intriguing mystery at the core of the story, and it shines through in the game’s best moments, but the game forgets that in great horror, less is more. When the game does slow down and just lets the horrors of the world sink in, The Medium is at its best and among great peers like Silent Hill 2. In the moments where this doesn’t happen, it’ll be the Dual Reality system that keeps you engaged.
The Best of Both Worlds
Bloober Team has stressed multiple times that The Medium’s Dual Reality gimmick wouldn’t be possible without the Xbox Series X. At multiple points throughout the game, players will control Marianne in both the Material and Spirit Worlds at the same time. Oftentimes, something is blocking progression in one of the worlds and players need to solve the puzzle that’s in their way.
The solutions and scenarios in these sections are never too complicated, and they usually boil down to powering something up with "spirit energy" so it works in the real world. Players will also have to dodge a grotesque creature called The Maw in both worlds, hiding and holding Marianne’s breath as the creature slowly stalks her in two worlds at once.
The team intentionally chose to use a fixed camera so the Dual Reality mechanic wouldn’t be nauseating or confusing to control. This not only keeps this unique concept manageable but is a nice callback to games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill that clearly inspired it. It also makes for some excellent cinematography in and out of cutscenes. The cutscenes also use the Dual Reality mechanic to enhance each scenario’s eeriness, even if the writing and voice acting isn’t succeeding at doing that.
The Silent Hill inspiration is obvious elsewhere too, such as h the color tones of the Spirit World and chase sequences that resemble some from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. In fact, the most memorable set piece in the game is a chase sequence that keeps switching between the two worlds with no loading screens in sight.
The Medium is the first game that really shows what the Xbox Series X can do, and it still has room to explore this mechanic further in future games. It suffers from occasional technical flaws, too: Character animations can look stilted and out-of-place in gorgeous, realistic environments. The frame rate also dips in some of the game’s more sprawling, later areas.
Still, The Medium is the first game that really feels like it needs to be on a next-gen system, which is something this new console generation still sorely needs. The Medium ultimately stumbles because of its weak script, but it’s worth loading up as an early-gen novelty if you have Xbox Game Pass and want to see what the next-gen fuss is all about.
The Medium will be released for PC and Xbox Series X on January 28, 2021.
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