Report Card: The Medium (Review)

Silent Hill is a series that is very near and dear to my heart. The haunting characters and twisted horror has made it a personal favorite and I consider the second installment in particular to be one of the best stories in gaming. With Konami seemingly uninterested in bringing back the franchise, it falls to other developers to fill the gap left in it’s absence and create the next great psychological horror game.

Developer Bloober Team has quietly earned a reputation over the years as one of the premier horror developers with games such as Layers of Fear and Blair Witch. Games which have received praise for their ability to scare even the most hardened horror fans. Now they have created their most ambitious title yet with The Medium, a game which takes quite a bit of inspiration from Konami’s iconic series. But does this new game take it’s place alongside other horror gaming greats? Or does it fall short and get lost in the fog?

In The Medium you play as Marianne, a young woman with the ability to communicate with the dead, beings who find themselves wandering the spirit realm, and she uses her gift to help them make the transition from this world to the next. After the passing of her foster father, Marianne receives a phone call from a man claiming to know about her unique powers and offers to help her to understand them further. In return, he asks her to meet him at the Niwa Resort, an abandoned hotel in the Polish countryside with a very dark past.

As she arrives at the resort, it quickly becomes clear that whatever horrific events transpired there years ago have created powerful bonds to the spirit world, and Marianne begins to see and hear things that indicate that there are spirits still roaming the halls of Niwa, and not all of them are peaceful.

An hour or so into the game it became apparent just how much Bloober Team was inspired by their visits to Silent Hill. It may not seem fair to constantly be comparing this game to one of the most popular horror series of all time, but my guess is that the developers would welcome that comparison as they’ve been pretty open about how those games influenced them, and I think that they should take those comparisons as a compliment, as they do a fantastic job of capturing much of what made those games so classic.

What The Medium does so admirably is the way in which it perfectly captures the feel of those games. From the fixed camera perspectives and the way that the game controls, to the underlying tension and sense of melancholy that permeates throughout the entire experience. They also enlisted famed Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka to work on the soundtrack which really serves as the icing on the cake as far as the presentation goes. Bloober Team does a commendable job of walking that fine line between inspiration and imitation. It never feels like they’re trying to copy and paste what made Silent Hill great, but rather they harnessed the way it felt to play those games and recreated that sensation. It’s exactly what I had hoped they would do and makes this game a “spiritual successor” in every sense.

Like the previous games that Bloober Team has created, the gameplay in The Medium is a much more passive experience than most horror games, with no real combat to speak of. Instead you’ll be searching the environment for clues to the story and solving some (fairly simple) puzzles to advance. Thankfully though they’ve made up for the lack of enemies to fight by creating some truly unique and interesting gameplay mechanics centered around how Marianne explores the world.

You’ve probably seen it in the game’s marketing, but the big hook of this game occurs when Marianne is able to enter the spirit world. When this happens the game goes into split-screen, allowing you to see the world from both perspectives. As you move her about the world like this, both versions of Marianne move in unison, exploring spaces which are physically the same but look completely different. One one side of the screen she’ll be exploring a dark and decrepit office, while on the other side the room is lit in an eerie orange glow and the walls made up of rotting flesh. It’s not only for the sake of appearances though, as there may also be items that appear in one realm but not the other, so you’ll need to watch both realities so not to miss anything important.

You also can only see the spirits themselves while in the spirit realm, so while you’re having a conversation with the spirit of a young girl on that side, back in the real world Marianne is interacting with thin air and appears to be talking to herself. You will also reach areas in which Marianne can’t physically proceed due to a blocked doorway or collapsed ceiling, at which point she will need to leave her body behind and fully dive into the spirit realm to complete her objective. She’s only able to leave her body for a short while though, so you must hurry to find what you’re looking for and return to your physical form. These interactions with the spirit world are a fun and interesting twist on the horror genre, and makes it stand out from anything else I’ve played before.

One of the spirits which you’ll encounter is a lumbering beast known as “The Maw”, a grotesque monster who will stalk you wherever you go and cannot be killed. Encounters with him can be terrifying because unlike other spirits you come across, The Maw has the ability to reach beyond the spirit realm and hunt you in the real world as well. When he finds you in the real world he is also invisible, meaning that the only way to know where he is, is to look for a slight distortion in the air surrounding him or to spot things like ripples in the water if he steps through a puddle. These encounters are much more frightening than when you see him in the spirit realm, his true form coming off as slightly cheesy looking and not nearly as menacing. The Maw is also voiced by Troy Baker, who turns in a surprisingly creepy performance. His voice twisting and contorting in bizarre ways which always sent a chill up my spine.

Sadly, these encounters with The Maw are the only parts of the game which are truly scary. Most of the rest of the game comes off us merely creepy or unsettling. The game also drags on a bit in the middle, failing to create a constant sense of urgency or suspense the way that both the first and last act do. It does come to a satisfying conclusion though, and one that will have you trying to piece together what you think really happened until we hopefully see a sequel in a few years.

The Medium wears it’s inspiration on it’s sleeve. It aims to make you relive those glory days of video game horror from the early aughts, but with a unique take that doesn’t just recycle the scares of the past. For the most part it succeeds in creating a captivating story with interesting characters and a cool gameplay style. There are things it can improve on though and the spirit realm seems like an idea that has far more potential than what is accomplished here. The groundwork has been laid though and hopefully this game will be true to the series that served as inspiration and one day deliver a sequel that will blow us all out of the water.

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