The Medium often feels like a theme park attraction. I'm not talking about the thrilling adventure of Space Mountain at Disneyland, but something more in line with a slower dark ride attraction such as The Haunted Mansion. Bloober Team's latest title, one that aims to utilise the Xbox Series X|S' horsepower to a large extent, is a gorgeous visual treat which slowly pushes you deeper into its narrative from one set piece to the next. But it also feels hands off in some respects, making you feel like an observer of its surroundings rather than being directly involved, which both works for and against The Medium.
It's evident Bloober Team has focused on The Medium's storytelling rather than pushing for action packed moment-to-moment gameplay. For that, The Medium generally succeeds as it places you in the shoes of Marianne, a young medium who works on helping lost souls move to the other side. Haunted by dark visions and greeted by a mysterious phone call, Marianne is propelled on a psychological narrative which explores many dark themes with twists and turns.
The narrative takes a while to gain momentum, as an incredibly dull opening hour drags its feet across the floor, slowly introducing you to the game's mechanics. Marianne's movement speed is extremely sluggish, even while running, further adding to the tedium of the game's opening, which really should be trying its hardest to grab the player's attention. Thankfully, the narrative quickly ramps up after one early horror-fuelled set piece and it never truly lets up from there, with a central engaging mystery that comes packed with huge emotional payoffs.
Marianne is voiced beautifully, adding moments of fear when needed and the odd touch of humour to break the palpable tension throughout. Troy Baker also stars as the terrifying antagonist, The Maw, embracing the full "monster under your bed" vibes with his deep, foreboding voice that can instantly raise the hairs on your neck as he whispers to you in many of the game's environments. In fact, The Medium's entire voice cast really throw themselves into the role, dialling up the emotion and creating a stark contrast from their previous work on Blair Witch, which ultimately felt quite stale.
Unfortunately, the facial animations fail to capture the fine voice work on display, often feeling stoic and lifeless. It's a shame, as the narrative in certain beats is attempting extremely hard to elicit an emotional reaction, coupled by a fantastic soundtrack by Arkadiusz Reikowski and Akira Yamaoka, the latter who previously worked on the Silent Hill series. Despite its attempts, it never successfully lands those beats due to unconvincing motion capture.
Outside of its facial work however, The Medium is an absolute stunner, portraying arguably the best use of next-gen hardware right now. Each environment feels meticulously detailed with incredible lighting effects across the board. On numerous occasions I found myself just soaking up The Medium's environments, especially those in the spirit world which manage to be extremely vibrant, despite their gruesome setting.
In a next-gen launch which has delivered very little in exclusive titles, The Medium is undoubtedly a visual showpiece and worth playing through for the spectacle alone. With that said, it's evidentially pushing the Xbox Series X to certain limits, with dual-reality sections in particular having an array of graphical glitches, frame rate drops and texture pop-in - at least in our pre-release experience. It's an issue which is found to be more prevalent in the game's second half, clearly working the Xbox Series X into overdrive. Hopefully this is something that will be rectified in a day one patch (note: Bloober Team has told Digital Foundry that some visual issues are currently in the process of being fixed).
While The Medium may be a looker, none of that matters unless the gameplay loop itself is engaging. It has a few tricks up its sleeve, including the previously mentioned dual-reality, which simultaneously runs two game worlds in split-screen, giving you direct control over both. Marianne can also leave her body and freely roam the spirit world, interacting with the environment to make a path for real world Marianne. It slowly evolves over time, delivering more interesting puzzles, with one involving a doll house and mirrors being a standout.
With a six to seven hour playtime, The Medium never overstays its welcome, but it never truly marries the narrative and gameplay to the level it could. Outside of dual-reality, Marianne can interact with the environment to view flashbacks, summon a spirit shield to push through deadly bugs, or complete a variety of puzzles. Each of these elements feel boxed off from each other, and it never feels as though there's any experimentation with its systems, instead placing small gameplay moments to break up what is essentially a walking simulator.
One notable example is an early situation which involves a chained up door, requiring Marianne to find a pair of bolt cutters to continue forward. After an elaborate, yet easy puzzle to complete, the bolt cutters are presented. From that point forward, multiple doors require the bolt cutters to be able to advance, but add nothing new to the gameplay experience. It's puzzles like these which prevent The Medium from perfectly balancing an intriguing narrative with compelling gameplay, instead making it feel like window dressing. It's not until the game's final hour that puzzles become more involved, by which point the credits begin to roll.
Certain situations also call for stealth, but again, are presented in the most generic way. Rooms will be set up in deliberately placed situations, as the enemy maintains the same walking path around the environment. As with the puzzles, they're incredibly easy to bypass, adding zero tension to the moment and instead being a hinderance rather than a meaningful inclusion into its gameplay. The gameplay shines brightest when it allows you to simply explore, picking up notes and other items that flesh out the narrative, or using the world itself to tell a story.
That said, a few set pieces do manage to ramp up the tension, with heart racing chase sequences and genuinely terrifying story beats. Unlike previous work such as Blair Witch which had you fumbling around the woods feeling lost in its setting, or Observer, which provided you with a whole futuristic apartment complex to explore, The Medium is the team's most focused work yet. Even with the lack of engaging gameplay, it's a funnelled, thrilling horror that manages to keep you invested in its narrative and world, despite the shortcomings.
As a narrative focused experience, The Medium generally impresses. In terms of gameplay, it often just feels too easy and lacking in depth. But even with criticisms towards the latter, if you're looking to embrace a horror game for one dark night or two, The Medium is a worthy choice. It's clearly the vision of a team who loved the concept and wanted to take players on a narrative driven adventure, filled with dark themes and systems such as the dual-reality mechanic that feel integral to the story. If you can accept The Medium for the experience that it is, you're in for a good time, but dial back your expectations for the actual gameplay.