The other side

'The Medium' is a mediocre game with revolutionary implications

You'll trudge through two confusing, buggy worlds and coming out the other side with... hope?

You probably shouldn't play The Medium. Allow me to get that out of the way. Now, is The Medium a good game? That's a lot more complicated of an answer.

2021's first real, next-gen exclusive comes to Xbox January 28 in the form of The Medium. In the game, you play as Marianne, a young medium who can connect with the "other side" to speak to the dead and help them move on. We travel to Niwa, a long-since abandoned vacation lodge run by the government. There we meet a young girl named Sadness who lives on the other side and an invisible monster who threatens your safety as you desperately plunge into the secrets of your past.

The first thing that sets The Medium apart from the thousands of other vaguely spooky narrative games that have relentlessly dropped since the mid-90s is its core gameplay mechanic: Marianne can inhabit both our world and the other side simultaneously. The trouble is, our sides are subtly different and mixing them doesn't usually end well for either. This mechanic is made possible thanks to the incredible loading times and processing power provided by the new Xbox Series X / S units.

The other thing that makes this title special is that it's Microsoft's latest attempt to bring its long-term vision for Game Pass to the forefront of the conversation. The Medium, as a ten hour, narrative-driven, puzzle game with plot twists, is built with Game Pass' economic force and audience dynamic in mind. In many ways, The Medium is Microsoft's answer to Netflix's Stranger Things.

The game itself is a mixed bag. The art, inspired by the surreal works of famed Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński, is stunning and unique enough to give the game its own identity. Unfortunately, the visuals themselves are far, far too dark in practice. This has the effect of making the game's ambitious atmosphere more confusing than scary; I played it with the gamma turned up as high as possible on my LG OLED TV and still ended up spending much of my time running into walls and passing important landmarks. Towards the end of my play through, I spent a cool hour looking for a staircase that was buried in shadow in the foreground of the environment. None of these issues are helped by the game's fixed camera perspective which, while an awesome throwback to the original Resident Evil and Silent Hill days, could have been implemented tighter. I often found my character progressing in levels while I, the camera, stayed in the last room. This dragged down an otherwise well-paced, quick narrative.

This isn't the brightest scene in the game but it's close.Microsoft

Without too many spoilers, that plot tackles some huge issues in a short period of time: The Polish Solidarity Movement, the fall of the Iron Curtain, ethnic and religious discrimination, genocide, child sexual abuse, kidnapping and imprisonment, and more. This is exciting territory for narrative games — especially ones that blend environmental storytelling, cutscenes, and puzzles. Unfortunately, the game’s plot is entirely too vague. It needed to either outright deal with the issues it only insinuated it was or not tackle them at all. The game would have been infinitely more enjoyable if the characters or the imagery would have explicitly told us what was going on — or, alternatively, if the writers had chosen subject matter they were comfortable portraying. In the end, I had a rough idea of what had gone down but my confusion, until I put the pieces together with guesswork, ruined any chance the game had of creating characters as beloved as those from Until Dawn.

The game also suffers from a constant need to tell the player about action and plot that happened off-screen — or makes passing references to Polish history that most gamers outside of the country will have no shorthand for. In a sequel, it would be nice to be the person actually making an impact on the game’s world and not just a tourist exploring the wreckage of another life. The game goes to pains to explain everything our character feels and how each gameplay mechanic works without explaining why the character or the player should actually want to do these things.

Empty pools are an easy way to spook people out.Microsoft

Additionally, the game misses a huge chance to be a horror game without combat — a surprisingly successful genre lately — opting for long, emotional scenes rather than big scares. The main adrenaline rush you’ll get from the game comes in the form of chase sequences and stealth sequences against an enemy you cannot see. Not an enemy that is obscured, mind you; and enemy that is actually invisible. Tricks like this often work on film but make for frustrating gameplay when you’re caught in a loop of dying and reloading while you figure out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing.

But the split worlds gimmick is a powerful one and it alone is enough to overcome a lot of the game's shortcomings. It functions much like the couch co-op of the original Mario Kart but with one character interacting with two different worlds. This idea opens the game up for some insanely good puzzles and misunderstandings between characters. It's too bad the game barely scratches the surface of the concept. Perhaps we'll get more in an upcoming sequel called The Large? Who can say?

This is exactly the kind of gameplay mechanics that wouldn't be possible without those fancy new NVMe SSD drives

This feature is such an excellent showcase for the next-gen (or is it current-gen now?) power of the Xbox Series X / S, one wonders if the original, non-COVID release plan was for The Medium to be a holiday launch title. This is exactly the kind of gameplay mechanic that wouldn't be possible without those fancy new NVMe SSD drives and the lightning fast loading times that the consoles are sporting. Watching the game render two separate worlds and characters at once, seamlessly, is probably the first time I've been wowed by anything these new Xboxes have had on offer.

On the other hand, you can feel the limitations of the platform. While the developers worked the Xbox's controller as hard as they could, it simply doesn't have the immersive capabilities of Sony's DualSense. Where the DualSense could have made the game's magical vibrations individually distinguishable, the Xbox controllers simply rumble a lot. Hey Microsoft, where's that DualSense knock-off when you need it?

Okay, you both need to redecorate.Microsoft

With all these new ideas and boundary testing, it's probably not a shock that the game also features many unpolished edges. The texture streaming is a constant frustration, as is the object pop-in present throughout the experience. I was also confronted with a number of bugs towards the end of the game which meant instant, repeating death every time I loaded a save until I found the one, specific move my character needed in order to survive another few seconds. That was the final nail in the coffin of any tension the plot had built up at that point.

So, yes, The Medium isn't a masterpiece — it's a pretty, shallow game with more ideas than it knows what to do with. But in a way, none of that matters at all. What does matter, to Microsoft and to you, is that, as a short-form experimental game with low replayability, The Medium is a perfect title for Game Pass. Thanks to the subscription model, The Medium will find an audience that can go into it with no expectation and latch on to its big ideas and iconic character models. If enough people buy into its marketing and vision, The Medium (and many games like it) will get the chance to live on in the form of low-risk sequels that can build upon the feedback given to this exciting, if ultimately flawed, taste of a franchise in the making. If Microsoft has its way, we'll be getting a lot of ambitious, short-form, experimental adventures that, in another world, couldn't justify AAA development costs. I don't know for certain if that path leads to better games than The Medium but this certainly is an exciting world we've crossed over into.

A copy of The Medium was provided by Microsoft to Input for review.