When it was first announced at the Inside Xbox May showcase in 2020, The Medium was a universal bright spot amongst an otherwise controversial showcase. A unique concept, some truly next-gen looking gameplay and the promise of Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka returning to the horror genre were all reasons to get excited. As more details were shared, there was further reason to get excited in what appeared to be a big departure for developers Bloober Team – the horror maestros responsible for games like >Observer_, Blair Witch and Layers of Fear.
However, I don’t think Bloober ever could have expected the pressure put on this game. With Halo Infinite delayed out of the launch window completely, and several multiplatform games performing better on Sony’s hardware in spite of Xbox’s clear-cut advantage in the hardware department (it is speculated this is due to immature tools), fans have been chomping at the bit for an experience that showcases the Series X is worth it. As my colleague Richard Dobson so succinctly put it in his review of the system, the Series X is something of a “caged animal waiting to be unleashed”. Is The Medium the game fans have been hoping for, or is it destined to join titles like Godfall, Ryse: Son of Rome and Killzone Shadow Fall in the well-meaning and visually splendent, if still nevertheless disappointing, technical showcase category?
Beginning with the visuals, The Medium is a complete showstopper in environment design. Several of the environments, particularly ones set during daytime, are as close to photorealistic as I’ve seen running on a console. And yes, I am including the Demon’s Souls Remake, HITMAN 3 and Spider-Man Miles Morales on PS5 in this comparison. The work done by Bloober is absolutely jaw-dropping, and the expertly integrated ray tracing is a visual delight. The spirit world – another important part of the game we’ll get to shortly – trades photorealism for a visual design inspired by the works of Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński; it hits just the right notes between unsettling and beautiful. The only area where the game arguably falters visually speaking is in the character models which, while still good, do stick out a bit and look like they are from a late gen Xbox One game (again, not a bad benchmark; they can just pop out a tad). Still, in terms of visuals overall, The Medium is quite strong and definitely a next-gen game.
Moving on to the story, The Medium tells the tale of Marianne, a young woman with a unique connection to the spirit world. A liaison of sorts between our world and the spirit world, she helps guide restless ghosts into the afterlife. However, one day out of the blue, she gets a call from a man named Thomas who claims to know about the source of her powers, and implores her to travel to the Hotel Niwa, a site of a massacre five years prior, that may just hold the answers Marianne is looking for. Along the way, she encounters several unique characters including a young girl named Sadness, and a disturbing creature known as The Maw which will undoubtedly be the source of many nightmares.
The story itself is very well-done. I was taken aback by how mature, thoughtful and intriguing it was. I found myself invested deeply in Marianne’s character, and I felt the urge to explore the world to find several artifacts to help uncover the mystery. The game does deal with some deeply mature topics, the likes of which I don’t want to delve into for both spoiler reasons and otherwise, but at least in my opinion it handles these themes with tact and respect. The story also goes out of its way to humanize its villains, even in spite of the horrific deeds they commit, leading to some of the game’s most impactful and sobering moments. Also, above all else, the story itself is appropriately scary and unnerving in the conventional sense as well, meaning those here for creature thrills and haunted hotels will find a lot to enjoy as well, but it never goes for a cheap scare. This is a story that will shock, surprise and engage many people.
The gameplay, however, is where I think the audience will be divided. For better or worse, do not go into this game expecting Silent Hill. Yes, Yamaoka has composed a wonderful soundtrack and there are some extra surprises for Silent Hill fans, but this is not a survival horror game. While it utilizes mechanics from older survival horror games like an original Resident Evil-style fixed camera, the game is primarily an adventure title, much like Bloober’s previous work. The combat is virtually non-existent barring one section, and the majority of the game consists of solving puzzles, reading lore pieces and exploring linear environments, taking in the atmosphere. As someone who loves this style of game, I was absolutely delighted with the gameplay (even if the fixed camera took a bit of getting used to), but I must emphasize it is not going to be for everyone.
However, I would be remiss to not mention The Medium’s central selling point – its patented dual reality gameplay. At several points during the game, the player will be able to control both Marianne in the regular world and in the spirit world concurrently. These make not only for some awe-inspiring moments visually, but also some of the best puzzles in the game. Seeing how the two forms of reality interact with one another is exciting, and the game’s ability to load the worlds almost instantaneously is thoroughly impressive. However, it must be noted that these moments probably make up a quarter to a third of the game itself, and the majority of The Medium is played in one reality.
Now, touching on some more miscellaneous positives, the audio work all around is fantastic. The audio design is immersive and really adds to the atmosphere – definitely play the game with headphones on! The voice acting is also solid across the board, with Marianne’s voice actress excellent and Troy Baker delivering his freshest performance in years, hamming it up as the infamous Maw. Additionally, the soundtrack, co-composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski and Akira Yamaoka, is moody, tense and thrilling. Finally, the game itself runs to about seven hours when searching for every collectable, and I was able to earn 960 Gamerscore on my first run-through. Ultimately, since The Medium is coming to Xbox Game Pass on day one and playstyles may differ, I think this runtime is pretty fair.
All of this being said, The Medium is not perfect. I had some bad visual glitches wherein particle effects and shadows were replaced with random rainbow shapes. Almost all small objects when viewed closely (like when examining an artifact) are privy to some distracting levels of pop-in, to the point that it can interfere with reading important notes. The environmental textures however were almost always at their highest fidelity. Finally, the performance, while mostly locked to 30fps, did dip or stutter in a few instances. Overall, these are minor gripes and may have been fixed by the time of release.
All in all, The Medium on Xbox is the game fans have been waiting for. A dark, mature, scary, visually appetizing next-gen delight with a gripping story, it is one to not miss if you are a fan of psychological horror. Above all, this feels like an experience that really shows the chops of the Series X, and will likely serve as a benchmark title going forward, especially if the few remaining technical issues are patched. All of this being said, the gameplay may not be for everyone and some of the subject material may bring high levels of discomfort (and not in the fun horror style), so it may be wise to look before you leap. For my part, I absolutely adored this game, and I cannot wait to see what Bloober Team does next.