In the past five years, Bloober Team has all but reinvented itself. From the early access Layers of Fear and its sequel, to Observer and 2019’s Blair Witch, their focus on the genre has firmly established Bloober as a premiere horror development studio. The Medium, originally announced in 2012, has been reimagined since its original inception, but its psychological thriller format is familiar territory for the team. Does this latest title help reaffirm and strengthen their contributions to horror? Or does it, in its effort to churn out another hit, run neither hot nor cold?
In the game, Marianne is lured to the Hotel Niwa, once hailed as a communist vacation paradise for middle-income families and rumored to have been the site of a massacre some years prior. The hellish scene that awaits her when she arrives all but confirms its history of violence. Crumbling concrete pillars and rotten carpet mingle with blood streaks and howls of the dead. As she moves through the hotel, her journey is supplemented by a strange set of psychic powers she has had since childhood, allowing her to unravel the events by accessing a supernatural otherworld.
Over the course of their career, Bloober Team has perfected the art of a good atmosphere. Hotel Niwa, based on a 1-1 recreation of a real hotel in Krakow, Poland, is drenched in the delicious sort of urban decay you see in disaster porn shots of Chernobyl and abandoned theme parks. Illustrating the duality of Marianne’s ability to straddle two realities is a split-screen mechanism that often shows her actions in both the “real” and an “other” world. Using her mind, Marianne can harness spiritual energy to see and feel things that other people can’t. She can sense “spirit trails,” paths of energy that linger around anomalous objects and locations, some of which manifest in small rifts that can be explored to release memories that are relevant to that place. She also has a spirit shield that fends off certain enemies with the repelling power of light energy. In combination these skills allow her to find clues to the hotel’s past and navigate the dangers of the ossuary that haunts it.
The Medium is structurally familiar to fans of horror games, in that it centers mostly on uncovering memories of past inhabitants and rooting through rooms and belongings to find ways to progress to the rest of the building. Puzzles will often involve Marianne psychically projecting herself to the supernatural side and finding or interacting with an object before returning to reality to continue. Other sections are stealth or evasion-based, forcing Marianne to hide or obscure herself to escape a grotesque creature known as The Maw.
Typically in these kinds of games, the momentum is carried by the player’s sheer desire to see how the story plays out. They dig and root around and persevere because they would die of curiosity otherwise. But while The Medium attempts to reskin this structure with the addition of psychic skills and stealth sequences, Marianne’s powers only barely disguise the game’s inability to make a meaningful improvement on the game’s aging structure. Puzzles, or the details they reveal, are either boring or suffer from the game’s unpredictable pacing. The surreal chase and evade sections seem out of step with the rest of the game, and whatever tension these moments add is sabotaged by repetition and the sheer over-the-top cheese of The Maw’s lines as Marianne feebly holds her breath and hides. It’s hard to figure out what part of the game is supposed to be enjoyable. There is no glory or satisfaction in the execution of its most important gameplay features, or in the story. It is a cheerless play.
Promotional materials for The Medium note the Silent Hill alumni who worked on the game as if to strengthen its own pedigree by association. And from the sequences depicting Marianne’s otherworldly psychic trips to the design of characters like Sadness and The Maw, it’s clear they took inspiration from the iconic series. What it also reveals however is how much they relied on a formula to bring The Medium together. All the usual high-quality production elements are in place, but it’s difficult to pinpoint any particular conviction in its creation. All the pieces of the puzzle are there, but I don’t like the picture.
A good horror game can make rifling through old postcards and personal letters a compelling experience. But The Medium seems entitled, in that it expects me to be titillated by its character design and atmosphere but won’t give me enough context to actually care about them. Between that and its tired puzzle-based progression barriers and dull character powers, The Medium fails to justify its existence.
The Medium was developed and published by Bloober Team. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for the Xbox Series X and S.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.