Bloober Team has earned a reputation as being one of the modern greats in horror, with their work on Layers of Fear, Blair Witch, and Observer: System Redux, they have made a career of getting under our skin and making us jump out of our seats.
Their latest title, The Medium, is being touted as their most ambitious game to date and this is undeniably true both in terms of design and intent.
Visually, this is unlike anything Bloober Team have made before. Their established house style is first-person based, 'walking simulator' gameplay, but The Medium adopts a more classic fixed-camera style, reminiscent of the original Resident Evil games. While this isn't the most ideal choice in terms of player control, and there are many instances where control of Marianne gets a touch fiddly (especially troublesome in moments where reaction times are essential), it does allow them more room to create a mood with a carefully composed shot.
This aesthetic change helps add atmosphere to the story, which takes its time to get going comparative to other Bloober titles. It's not slow by any means, but it is patient. It has a great deal of backstory to establish, it has a lot of unique gameplay mechanics to introduce, and it does all of this with a slow burn. It makes sure to tune you into the right emotional frequency, it's not a game about wall-to-wall terror, it's as much about trauma and grief and healing. It needs to prepare you for a game that won't always be trying to scare the life out of you.
In these early stages, we are introduced to Marianne's abilities as a Medium such as her second sight, which allows her to see things the human eye might miss like footprints or hidden objects, and, most crucially, her ability to traverse two worlds at once. The dual reality system is one of The Medium's most publicised features, and we get a chance to experience it early on before the story begins in earnest. We get a sense of how it manifests, how it is visually implemented, and its overall purpose as a gameplay mechanic.
With one foot in the spirit world, you can find things that aren't visible in the real world. You can even put both feet in the spirit world by having an out of body experience to access areas out of reach in the real world. Some puzzles in the spirit world will help you access new areas in the real world and vice versa. While in the spirit world, you can also find energy sources that you can absorb to solve puzzles or defend yourself. It is not simply a visual gimmick that is trotted out a few times for sheer spectacle, Bloober Team has built some brilliant and varied puzzles that ensure it is integral to the entire game.
In this world, the lost souls walk around wearing creepy porcelain masks, but otherwise, behave as they would in life. Your first encounter with one such soul is key to the game and its overall goals. It's not a moment of terror but a moment of grief and love; two emotions inexorably joined. Much of The Medium will explore these seemingly contradictory but inseparable states. It also lowers your guard a little, ensuring the real scares carry more weight because you are aware of what is considered normal in the world of a Medium.
Bloober Team are the masters of horror staging in gaming right now. Anyone who has played one of their games knows just how good the Polish developer is at getting a good jolt out of you, gradually wearing down your resolve, so every corner left to turn leaves you gripped with dread. The Medium is full of well-executed jump scares, and cultivating an atmosphere that leaves you apprehensive about what could be waiting for you around the next bend.
One of the most prominent threats in The Medium is Maw, a truly ghastly creation. Maw stalks you in both worlds, posing unique challenges and advantages in each, and both will leave you rattled. In the spirit world, Maw can see you, so you need to sneak around him or run for your life, but you also have access to your spirit energy to ward him off and buy you time. Maw is invisible in the real world, but he cannot see you, so you need to be quiet and take your time getting around him because you are cut off from your spirit energy and utterly helpless. With Maw, Bloober Team toys with new play styles while also remixing ones they are familiar with. Maw is easily one of their most terrifying creations yet; brilliantly designed, and performed with wretched malevolent glee by Troy Baker.
There are other tortured and cruel creatures roaming the spirit realm, and they are also masterfully designed and presented. We get vague glimpses in the distance, building the fear of what the rest of this gruesome shape could look like or what it has planned for you until the right moment comes to let you see things in all their horrible glory. And it pays off really well every time.
When not evading nightmarish horrors, The Medium will have you solving puzzles and seeking out clues. Bloober Team has used investigation mechanics in their games before, illuminating story developments and background details that the main narrative thrust can't get to naturally, and The Medium does that here.
You will find objects marked by an 'echo', you find these by studying the object until the mark shows itself, which then unlocks what amounts to an audio log. There are also soul fragments scattered around, broken pieces of a moment in time that you have to reassemble to relive the scene. These are both fairly common mechanics in clue-hunting games, and when you experience them you will immediately remember which games have done them before, but they are given a function that is consistent with the rules of this universe. Every component of The Medium makes sense within the context of its world and story, which is just as important as being original. These elements are used along with the reality hopping mechanics to aid in your understanding of the cursed place you find yourself lost in; Niwa, a resort area in the Polish countryside that was the location of a massacre.
Marianne was summoned to Niwa by a mysterious phone call promising answers to the questions that plagued her all her life. On arrival, it is clear something is very wrong with Niwa. The spirit world is warped and menacing; something evil is buried in the heart of Niwa like a parasite, and it is feeding on souls. While you investigate Marianne's past, you are also tasked with saving these lost, damaged souls by investigating their past, learning their fates, their names, to make them whole and reassure them that they are safe to go.
The larger story takes some truly unexpected turns, changing trajectory at times when you least expect it. The game tackles some hard themes, such as childhood trauma and Poland's history with the Nazis, but does so with sensitivity. The Medium shows horror can get under your skin, take you down some truly dark paths, without the need to be exploitative and thoughtless. It all contributes to a story about how we deal with traumatic events in healthy and unhealthy ways.
The deeper you delve, the closer you get to the truth, the worse it seems to get. This is a place coated in scar tissue, the horrors of the past run deep. The nightmarish spirit world is a mutilated reflection of the traumas it has witnessed. All of this is stunningly designed, feeling truly apocalyptic at times. You will also explore dreamscapes with the sort of ingenious level design you would usually see in a Remedy game. Bloober Team has always been great at manipulating reality and perception, but they move to the next level with their work here.
Graphically, however, The Medium is not on a par with many games coming to this new era. The character models feel very much of the past generation while the environments are frequently stunning in their production. It's still a good looking game, it just isn't the graphical tech demo you may be hoping for when you load it into your Xbox Series X or PC.
Where the game really benefits from next-gen tech advancements is in its fast loading times, it hinges on a seamless flow from one moment to the next, something horror games of the past often struggle with, where the momentum of a scene or the carefully cultivated atmosphere of a location is harmed by the sudden need for a load screen. That is not an issue with The Medium, you will flow from one scene to the next, the scares can build and execute naturally, and the jumps between realities happen seamlessly. The game may not look as great as some recent next-gen offerings, or even some late-stage last-gen games like The Last of Us Part II, but it's a perfectly paced and executed experience.
The score by Arkadiusz Reikowski & Akira Yamaoka is absolutely stunning, at times reminiscent of the best of Silent Hill, and there is never a moment where the score does not heighten the melancholy or the dread. It is among one of my favourite scores in recent times, horror or not.
Overall, The Medium is Bloober Team's most accomplished work as visual storytellers, it shows they are ready to make the step into the AAA leagues after being kings of indie horror for the last five years. Bloober Team crafting a terrifying game is no surprise, but this is their most emotionally compelling game to date.
As scary as the game gets, its core, its entire drive, is to confront and understand trauma and find a sort of peace. Horror is not a genre exclusively designed to dwell on the worst of human nature, it can be used to examine what makes us great through a darker lens. It does not have to be about scarring you, it can be about healing old wounds. The Medium shows us wounds inflicted by guilt, anger, pain, and fear, with a hope that we can overcome them. It's ultimately a horror game about fighting to hold on to your compassion and empathy, even when the world is so full of unimaginable horrors.