What is it? A third-person stealth/puzzler horror game in the spirit of old school Resident Evil.
Expect to pay: $50/£40
Developer: Bloober Team
Publisher: Bloober Team
Reviewed on: Ryzen 7 3700X, RTX 2060 Super, 16 GB RAM, SSD
Link: Official site (opens in new tab)
We're all going to die some day, so I won't waste your time: The Medium is one of the best third-person horror games I've ever played. Bloober Team, the studio behind Blair Witch and the Layers of Fear series, has completely outdone those less ambitious games with the fantastically written, emotionally grounded story of Marianne, a young woman who can see and communicate with spirits. What it lacks in technical polish it makes up for with chilling set pieces and thoughtful plot developments.
The Medium plays like an old school Resident Evil game, minus the guns. You navigate Marianne around crumbling, abandoned hotels and claustrophobic Cold War bunkers from fixed camera angles, which can be cumbersome, but it's an effective design choice. Like the games that inspired it, The Medium is excellent at making you feel like you're always being watched, and that danger could be lurking just out of view at any time.
What you do is fairly simple: Most sections involve finding hidden objects, solving puzzles, or sneaking past ghastly enemies against whom you are mostly powerless. The added gimmick is that Marianne can sometimes see into the spirit world, which is handled by splitting your screen in half. All inputs affect the real and spirit world versions of Marianne identically, but things are complicated by small differences in the terrain or enemies that only exist in one world. Bloober definitely didn't push this idea to its limits. Most of the puzzles are fairly simple, and there were only a couple of those Portal-like "A-ha!" moments that made me feel like I'd done something really clever. But the lack of roadblocks keeps the pacing fairly brisk, which works well with the kind of story that's being told.
That story is undoubtedly the star. The Medium is exquisitely paced and plotted, with multidimensional characters and a complex, but not convoluted, supernatural mystery to uncover. I had several running theories about what was going on at the haunted Niwa Resort that all made sense, but the true answer ended up being even more elegant and poignant than I guessed—and yet the solution didn't come out of left field, M. Night Shyamalan style.
Over its course, The Medium asks what makes a person evil, and what the difference is between the innately sadistic and those who are turned into monsters by cycles of violence—though it doesn't apologize for anyone. In untangling these themes it explores domestic abuse and even genocide, but these concepts aren't displayed gratuitously for mere shock value. It's some of the sharpest writing I've seen in a videogame in quite a long time.
This is all supported by a spectacular voice cast. From the intrepid but troubled Marianne to the enigmatic avenger Thomas to a deeply unnerving archvillain brought to life by Troy Baker, every character is realized with exceptional emotional depth and authenticity. The central struggle Thomas faces, in particular, is a heartbreaking story of a man in an impossible situation, and all of its highs and lows hit me right in the heart. It's easy to find common ground with characters who are trying to do the right thing in a world with no right answers.
Composers Arkadiusz Reikowski and Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill franchise) back the exploration with a haunting, melancholy score, and then bring intense, disturbing tracks when we're fleeing for our life—it's music you'll notice and appreciate. And every rundown hallway and spooky Polish forest feels alive thanks to some of the best positional audio and layered ambience I've heard in a game: Lifelike echoes bounce off of a concrete tunnel, and the ramblings of a creature hunting you pace back and forth between the left and right audio channels.
It looks pretty stunning, too, with overgrown, post-Soviet ruins in the real world and a macabre, yellow-tinged spirit world as its surreal mirror. The textures, color balance, and lighting evoke a range of moods: intrigue, unease, and unadulterated horror.
Niwa Resort is layered with small details from roof to paving stones, including crinkled old Polish magazines accurate to the 1990s era. When Marianne is split between worlds, walls of human flesh and spectral moths are juxtaposed with the mundanity of an abandoned classroom on the other side of the screen. It gives the sense that you're never really safe—when the split screen effect goes away and you're just looking at the classroom, how do you know what's going on over on the other side?
The character models are the one area where detail is lacking, especially in contrast to how fantastic everything else looks. They stand out with a somewhat doll-like appearance, and stiff animations. They won't always connect with the objects they're interacting with.
There are performance issues, too. While I was generally able to maintain a good 45-60 fps on my RTX 2060 Super, there is a significant amount of hitching when you first enter the spirit world or transition between gameplay and a cutscene. This took the bite out of some key moments, like a monster jumping out at you for the first time.
The RTX effects can look stunning, but they dropped me down closer to a 30-35 fps baseline with some dips into the mid-20s. The "RTX On" setting disables certain effects dynamically when performance dips too low, which is kind of nice, but can lead to weirdness like water flickering between RTX and non-RTX shading in a jarring way. The "Force On" option will prevent this, but it made certain areas with complex point lighting, particularly in the spirit world, an unplayable slideshow. So neither setting is completely ideal.
On another PC with an RTX 2070 Super, we managed framerates in the 40s to 60s at 1440p with RTX On and DLSS set to high quality, but also ran into occasional slideshows if RTX was bumped up to the highest setting.
Despite some technical foibles and the simple, unchallenging stealth and puzzle solving, I fell completely in love with The Medium. The writing stacks up to the very best in the genre with its well-crafted mystery that explores difficult, often heartbreakingly relatable themes on its way to a satisfying, though not uplifting conclusion. Top-notch actors realize complex and memorable heroes and monsters along the way, and the score, sound design, and art are gorgeous, pulling together an unforgettable, cohesive whole. The Medium is going to stick with me for a long time.