America - Front
America - Back
By Lee Mehr 28th Feb 2021 | 2,064 views
If nothing else, Polish developer Bloober Team deserves applause for its excitement of next-gen consoles. Whereas others are jogging or biding their time, this team sprints out of the gate with an inspired remaster and a new IP within the first three months of this new console cycle. Considering the previous lukewarm reception from me, one could - reasonably - interpret this speed as a cautionary tale. It actually turns out to be the opposite. Instead of laboring over another Layers of Fear, The Medium feels like an intrepid developer toying with new technology that presents a more meaningful story and horror game.
The setting is post-USSR Poland. Marianne, a gifted medium who ferries lost souls to their final rest within the otherworldly spiritual plane, is mourning the loss of her foster father. This is cut short when a mysterious stranger named Thomas calls her and promises answers to long-held questions about her supernatural aptitudes. She's beckoned to meet in-person at the decrepit Niwa Workers' Resort, site of a terrible tragedy whose scars permeate every square foot.
The first thing you're greeted with is a Marianne, cigarette in hand, recounting these events to descriptive detail. The story's structure is similar to Peter Stormare's psychiatrist character in Until Dawn: someone off-camera is effectively a stand-in for Marianne explaining these events. If you have a distaste for this storytelling approach that may sour the whole game to a certain extent. Initially, I was caught off-guard by the inflated exposition; nearing the conclusion, I appreciated why this route was taken. It's not quite as effective as Stormare chewing up his scenes, but that couldn't be topped anyways. Despite occasional over-writing in cut scenes & gameplay, this overarching structure sets a specific rhythm that would've made for a lesser story without it.
My annoyance for the exposition-dumping is due to how effective other aspects feel by comparison. It does a great job of leaving breadcrumbs for each successive event. Whether scouring more details about the Niwa Resort or considering the duality of the two worlds, Bloober's writers were considerate in planning scenarios and naturally incorporating them in gameplay. The narrative beats hit so effectively because of how carefully the "rules" of the Spirit World have been established beforehand without a mentor medium delivering encyclopedic information.
Bloober mostly succeeded in its character writing and thematic material as well. From innocent to emotionally damaged, the panoply of characters viewed in gameplay or in "echoes" found in the Spirit World carry fascinating emotional baggage. Despite heavy topics permeating throughout the narrative (some better left unsaid here), I never felt bludgeoned into a specific emotional response. How certain creative scenarios burrow uncomfortable implications, such as some Polish-flavored anti-communist rhetoric, made me appreciate it even more.
Like Bloober's other clear gem (Observer), The Medium's story succeeds by relying on a clear vision instead of gratuitous shock. It's not bereft of some uneven misfires, but it feels like the team's most mature work. This is buoyed by several quality performances as well, such as Kelly Burke as Marianne. Even the child actors are... fine, which isn't too bad given their typical track record. A couple of blemishes reside for too long, but it's ultimately an effective tale that never lost my attention.
The duality that exists between the physical & spiritual world isn't just metaphorical; it's a literal gameplay component for roughly a third of the runtime. Whether your screen is cleaved vertically or horizontally, Marianne is exploring 2 different worlds in tandem. The severe Eastern Bloc aesthetic of Niwa Workers' Center looks like a concrete paradise compared to the hellish Spirit World that's overwrought with tortured statues perpetually moaning in agony.
To simultaneously manage these two worlds without cooking your hardware, Bloober harkens back to survival-horror templates of fixed camera angles and tank controls - with some of the archaic clunky movement in tow. How the level design manages this is also interesting: a roadblock within one world carries over to the other. An open door in the real world may reveal a gross flesh blanket blockading your way in the spiritual plane. To move forward you must slice it from top to bottom with a straight razor. Only then is the way fully unlocked.
These dynamics are meted out in other ways too; manipulating an object in one world opens pathways in the other, out-of-body experiences allow corporeal Marianne to temporarily fly solo while real-world Marianne stays in place, and so on. The inverse of these rules apply to the disparate stealth segments between both worlds. In the spiritual plane, dodging a creature called "The Maw" is about line-of-sight; in the physical plane, you also have to hold your breath when he's close and can only see a semi-visible outline of him.
It's important to note that the puzzle-solving, light stealth, and late-game "action" elements are treated more like interspersed appetizers without feeling like an overriding majority. Sure, it has that baseline of an old survival-horror game; however, there's a lot of time spent soaking in the atmosphere or doing something as basic as reconfiguring statues with your control stick.
Similar with the story, there's a type of breadcrumb mentality to gameplay where it's maintained just enough to never feel arbitrary. The mix between tense chases, enjoyable puzzle-solving, and more feels meaningful thanks to their presentation and creative scenarios; that said, the overuse of one item in the second half gave way to missed opportunities. Imagine early brainteasers about opening a lock to then suddenly getting a blowtorch that'll solve 80% of your later problems. There's a bit of whiplash from that plus inconsistent rules for the real-world stealth segments. The variety typically remains simplistic and a couple of concepts aren’t totally polished, but The Medium's strengths are in honoring age-old templates with a fresh spin.
Even if the dual-world gameplay conceits occasionally stumble, the sumptuous visuals consistently dazzle. This should be clarified from the outset: this is still a $50 middle-market title that has its share of eurojank and rare sub-30 framerate drops. My focus isn't on Bloober's technical prowess with the Unreal Engine, rather I'm highlighting what'll likely be among my favorite art styles of 2021 games. A lot of that can be thanked to the excellent framing within certain locales; in fact, I'd say I haven't been taken aback to this degree since White Night or Resident Evil Remake. With the Spirit World utilizing Zdzisław Beksiński's dystopian surrealism and the Real World capturing the tone of Suspiria (2018), several of The Medium's split-screen shots aptly use two distinct color palettes yet harness the same post-communist ire. What's seen through the human eye is brutalist, Soviet-era architecture; but when looking beyond the surface, every square inch is corrupted by hatred, sorrow, and decay.
Like with the visuals, Bloober also made an inspired choice in assigning dual roles for composing. Silent Hill maestro Akira Yamaoka and Arkadiusz Reikowski score the physical and spiritual plane, respectively. There's practically an alchemical synergy between the two juggling such disparate tones, but it comes together so well. Like the art design, the OST deserves to be in the end-of-year nomination run. Beyond the soundtrack, the ambience is so thick you could cut it with a knife. It's not without blemishes though. For a game where sound design is so important, distracting sound issues would crop up in odd ways: the inconsistent thuds when Marianne's walking in the resort, missing sound queues when using bolt cutters, and other small details. These annoyances weren't omnipresent, but happened more often than they should.
Value is a straightforward consideration. It's a linear adventure with various collectibles to recover and the typical runtime will be 7-8 hours. Aside from appreciating some potential foreshadowing or getting missed collectibles, there's low replay value. That'll sting for some, but I thought it hit its prescribed quota: a game and a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Though not a game to completely forego jump scares, The Medium is nevertheless a great move away from the horror shlock Bloober Team's produced in the past. Rather than aping horror game-streaming bait like Layers of Fear again, Bloober Team looked towards icons like the Silent Hill series and arrived at something more inspired and filled with its own unique subtext. There are a few writing and gameplay demons to exorcise, but that only keeps Bloober Team's latest from séance-sational horror game status.
Despite being one of newest writers on VGChartz, Lee has been a part of the community for over a decade. His gaming history spans several console generations: N64 & NES at home while enjoying some Playstation, SEGA, and PC titles elsewhere. Being an Independent Contractor by trade (electric, plumbing, etc.) affords him more gaming luxuries today though. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.