Subtlety is difficult to master within a mystery game’s narrative. Tell too much, and you leave your audience bored. Give out too little information, and the gamer is left with nothing to think about. A certain balance is required, and The Medium manages to hit that sweet spot. Although not particularly frightening, it tells a fairly engaging and disturbing story that manages to instill a strong sense of unease and sombreness. With all of these factors working for it, it manages to be an above-average 8-10 hour horror game.
Medium: Gift or Burden?
Mind you, The Medium is specifically a psychological horror game, not a survival horror one. Although you have an inventory that you manage, you aren’t hoarding ammo ala Resident Evil. Nor are you managing your health like in Silent Hill. Combat in the game is kept to a minimum, and there are only a few creatures that can outright damage or kill you. No, this game doesn’t instill fears like that. Instead, it digs deep into your skin through its dark and unsettling mood.
What immediately hit me as I started The Medium was a feeling of loneliness and sombreness that perfectly mirrored the protagonist’s emotions. Marianne is plagued by a recurring nightmare about a young girls’ murder. Not only that, she’s burdened by the “gift” of being a medium. She has the ability to speak to spirits and send them to peace in the afterlife, but this burden has only caused her strife. The game opens on her foster father’s death, and it’s clear that she’s seen better times. Her only companion left is a cat, who you can, funnily enough, feed at the beginning of the game. For an achievement no less.
After saying farewell to her late adoptive father, she receives a mysterious and urgent call from a man named Thomas. He hints that she may not be the only one with these skills. Thomas waits at the Niwa Worker’s resort, a vacation site that was shut down years before due to a string of grisly murders. Desperate for answers to the origins of her powers, Marianne makes her way to the old resort and breaks in. As she digs deep into the hotel’s dark history, she begins to uncover truths that may shed light on her own past.
Spirits of the Otherworld
To explore the hotel, Marianne will need to call on her powers. As a medium, she has the unique ability to step into the spiritual realm. When this power triggers, the screen splits into two. One side of the screen shows the real world, while the other displays the spiritual realm. The spiritual realm can best be compared to the Otherworld of Silent Hill, old, decrepit, and falling apart at the seams.
The action of the gameplay continues with Marianne exploring both sides of reality. She also has the ability to astral travel by projecting her spirit from her body for a short amount of time. This skill comes in handy when she needs to enter areas that are blocked off by rubble or are underwater. Combined together, these abilities make for some fairly interesting puzzles. My favorite involved lowering the water levels in four rooms so as to make a way through a hallway to escape one of the game’s main enemies.
My favorite spiritual abilities, though, are the ones that tie directly into the game’s mysteries. Marianne has the ability to reconstruct events that occurred in the past into 3-dimensional tableaus and listen in on certain moments in time. Some of these moments are sad, others are horrifying, but all of them draw you further into the atmosphere and mystery of the game. During the re-creations of the past, the game plays its audio through the controller’s microphone. This is a unique touch, but sometimes it’s difficult to hear over the music and environmental sounds of the main game.
Drawn into Drama
Piecing together what happened at the Niwa resort was by far the most enjoyable part of the game for me. I didn’t always immediately make the connections that the mementos I picked up were pointing to. However, when I looked back, most of the time there was some connective tissue. Many times the game didn’t outright spell out what was happening but inferred it. Depending on what type of player you are, I can see this being frustrating. A certain event that occurs about halfway through the game is jarring and may catch players off guard, but everything does eventually click in due time.
Drawing me further into the drama was the game’s excellent voice acting and engaging characters. Voice actress Kelly Burke plays Marianne with a world-weariness that hits home, but she also knows how to add levity to serious situations and make you empathize with her. Her relationship with Sadness, one of the spirits of the game, is bolstered by her ability to create cheerful moments out of dire situations.
The Maw, the main antagonist of the game, is played by Troy Baker of The Last of Us fame. He finds some interesting variations in tone for the monster and instills his lines with a bit of creepiness. His lines are extremely disturbing, and at first, I found him disturbing, but I nonetheless eventually regarded him as more of a nuisance than something I was actually than something that I was actually scared of.
A Silent Hill Dream Team
The previous comparison I made to Silent Hill is apt. Team Bloober, the developers behind The Medium, managed to get Akira Yamaoka to compose the music for the physical plane, and he brings his usual brilliance. They also brought on Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, a singer who is famous for her melancholic vocals. While Yamaoka’s score is suffused throughout the game, I only noticed McGlynn’s voice once throughout the game. It was a treat when I heard it, though.
The Medium is an impressive title that delivers a bold and disturbing story. Its puzzles are satisfying to solve, and its unique use of Otherworld mechanics from the Silent Hill games breathes new life into the genre. Although not particularly frightening, the game still leaves you with a sense of dread after having played it, and not all horror games can accomplish that. The Medium earns a solid recommendation from me.