I’m not usually a fan of the horror genre so when I first heard about The Medium I passed it off as just another title I wouldn’t care for. But then I learned about its unique split-screen feature and a distinctive, ominous world designed under the inspiration of Zdzisław Beksiński’s paintings.
After appreciating its aesthetics from afar, I dove in with the only expectation that I would shudder and sink in my seat as I braved through its dark, macabre setting. And what I found after my roughly eight-hour playthrough was a complex tapestry of intriguing and suspenseful threads, all connecting together for a final gasp at its ambiguous, unsettling conclusion.
As Marianne, a funeral home worker with the ability to see and communicate with the dead, you receive a sudden call from a stranger named Thomas, urging you to find him at the Niwa Resort. He entices Marianne by offering answers about not only a recurring dream she’s had since she was a little girl, but also about her existence as a medium. Naturally, this piques Marianne’s attention and we soon discover that there is far more to this paranormal thriller than just finding a stranger.
The Medium is a slow-paced, third-person narrative-driven adventure game set in the 1990s post-communist Poland. You explore environments through fixed camera angles, like CCTV cameras following Marianne’s every movement. Taking inspiration from older Resident Evil games, the fixed camera angle completely directs the flow of The Medium serving both its gameplay and cinematic direction. Wide angles portray the ruins of the Niwa Resort, while tight close-ups convey a tense, claustrophobic tone.
As you traverse around your environment, you move objects to climb walls, find keys to open doors, and examine “echoes” from items rich with memories, leaving breadcrumbs of the people who suffered through the deeply disturbing events at the resort. As you dive deeper, The Medium flexes its most unique trait. Marianne can enter the spirit world and exist in the physical world at the same time. The game splits your screen in half to portray this and both halves represent Marianne’s symmetrical movements, but each half has key differences that only exist in one world.
Marianne encounters fairly simple puzzles, where you’ll need to balance your focus on each version of the character to walk through impassable doorways, use her spirit energy abilities to power a fuse box or find key items to progress. There was only a handful of “a-ha!” moments as I solved these puzzles, and they certainly helped to make the dual-screen engaging, but the majority of the puzzles feel passive and lack any real challenge.
However, it’s The Medium’s aesthetic that truly shines both through the dual-screen feature and as its own isolated screen. Both worlds are juxtaposed with vivid and arresting settings. The spirit world contains walls of human flesh, mazes of skeletons, patches of rotten fungi, barren hellscapes, and hauntingly beautiful pathways; while the physical world shows mundane, broken staircases, empty swimming pools, abandoned rooms, and overgrown branches nestling itself wherever it pleases. Although the physical world is the weaker of the artistic design, the fixed camera angle elevates the experience of walking through the Niwa Resort, making it more engaging and interesting to observe.
Cutscenes often utilize the split-screen layout, further emphasizing Marianne’s manifestation in two separate worlds as she uncovers layers of clues around her. The cutscenes also powerfully examine the supporting cast Marianne meets along the way and their thick histories of abuse, trauma, and grief.
The story that The Medium ends up unfolding is one filled with the horrific realities of life represented as grotesque monsters, traumatic memories found in left behind artifacts, and what happens when we let rage and loss completely control us and torment our souls. The Medium deals with these strong themes delicately, in ways that many video games are too afraid to address or failed to deliver.
Speaking of grotesque monsters, it’s worth noting that Troy Baker’s performance as The Maw is truly fantastic. While I certainly enjoyed the appearance of the supporting cast members, it’s The Maw’s anxiety-inducing presence that steals the show. I still remember the chills I felt down my spine as I was forced to listen to his sinister voice. Combined with the eerie soundtrack, almost every unsettling muttering from The Maw is haunting and truly maddening, adding a layer of stress as you attempt to escape from his clutches.
Of course, The Medium isn’t a perfect game. Playing on PC, there are some moments when texture loading lags as the game renders two separate landscapes. Some of the facial animations can also feel stiff, and while stealthily avoiding The Maw is a chilling experience, there are some encounters that feel a little rushed or predictable. Thankfully, none of these setbacks are game breaking or enough to sour the entire ride.
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