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The Medium review - excellent old-school horror with a touch too much jank

Bloober Team's latest goes under the microscope in our The Medium review.

The Medium isn't really the game I thought it was. Maybe I should have been paying closer attention to Bloober Team's Xbox Series X|S and PC exclusive, but this is an old-school horror game through the lens of next-gen power and possibilities. This isn't a triple-A game, it's a bit rough at points, it's heavy on story over action, and might come across to some as mechanically archaic, but for many reasons The Medium clicked with me. This isn't an exclusive Xbox fans will scream about on social media, but it's one that the right audience will find is a sometimes gorgeous, impressively atmospheric tale.

It didn't take long to be taken back to the original Alone in the Dark, Ecstatica, and even Resident Evil. The unexpected arguably begins with the camera, which is fixed, with the shot switching to the most useful for atmospheric and gameplay purposes. The Medium is also almost entirely devoid of combat. The threat that exists is mild, the puzzles are neat if not genius, and sometimes you walk awkwardly in the wrong direction because the camera shot changed. But, I enjoyed almost every moment - as much as you can enjoy a game about the darkest of secrets and their painful discovery.

Marianne is troubled. Not only has her foster father Jack recently died, but her head is full of visions. These nightmares prove to be more than manifestations of her mind, with Marianne able to see a parallel spirit world. This is The Medium's big hook, as for large chunks of the game you get to see both worlds side by side, Marianne moving through each in split-screen, and interacting with objects as they appear in each world. It's far from a gimmick, with key characters living in the spirit world, and some puzzles tied to how you play in both simultaneously. It looks damn cool.

The Medium Xbox Series X screenshot
The Medium review: at times this is a wonderful looking game.

To help you navigate through the puzzles you have access to a number of skills only people with Marianne's skillset are capable of. As well as being able to conjure an energy shield (useful to move through swarms of moths) and energy blasts (one shock in spirit land will power a device in the normal world), Marianne can use an enhanced vision mode to spot hidden objects while in our world.

While most spirit world gameplay sees you controlling Marianne in both worlds, which never gets old, you can activate an out of body experience and control her just in the spirit world. This mode is time-limited so you can't roam around indefinitely, but it's another smart way to add more variety to puzzles. Other than one moment early on, and some late-game headscratchers (which only required a little extra thought) the challenge here isn't high, but it's enough. The Medium isn't a game that really puts up a fight. You're on a journey to find out the truth rather than find out if you're an expert gamer. I was happy with that.

The Medium Xbox Series X screenshot
The Medium review: the two worlds split-screen looks great and isn't just a gimmick.

Story is a key part of The Medium, so you won't find any spoilers here. What can be said is that Bloober has done a great job crafting a multi-generation, multi-reality yarn that all comes together nicely as key plot points start to unravel. The storytelling itself is the studio at its best yet, and benefits from excellent vocal performances from Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Troy Baker, and others.

As a next-gen Xbox console exclusive a lot of attention will be on The Medium's graphics. Even though Bloober Team isn't a triple-A studio (and isn't shy about saying as much), comparisons to other exclusives on the new consoles will be plentiful and likely vociferous. While no doubt unfair to put this smaller effort up against mega-budget titles, at points The Medium is able to handle itself extremely well. There's some superbly lit scenes on offer, and the woodland environment (especially when you also see the hellish spirit world alongside it) is often gorgeous. But it's not all up to that standard.

The Medium Xbox Series X screenshot
The Medium review: woodland areas look stunning.

I played on Xbox Series X and the frame rate didn't seem silky smooth. There's also a fair bit of detail and texture load-in - something I'd hoped the SSDs in these new consoles would eliminate - and a varying mix of art quality on show throughout. Parts of this game are wonderful to look at, and give me confidence that Bloober will one day rival some of the industry's heavy hitters, but others feel bland and uninspired. There's also a fairly common slight disconnect with the player character and the world itself, although again this is sometimes exacerbated by the look of the environment.

These blemishes shouldn't put you off what is still technically an extremely impressive game. The way the two worlds are displayed alongside each other, Marianne moving identically in each, is awesome. So too is the way you can sometimes trigger a complete switch between worlds. It's not dissimilar to how you can flick between old-school and modern visuals in the Halo remasters, but it's more impressive here seeing as both worlds look impressive.

The Medium Xbox Series X screenshot
The Medium review: I never grew tired of the dual worlds.

If you're after action and full-on horror, The Medium will likely leave you wanting, and considerably so. This is more of a slow burn, the twisted plot unravelling over six to eight hours. I found the pacing to be ideal, with the game throwing just enough moments of high intensity into the mix to keep things interesting. There is a big bad of sorts, but don't expect traditional boss fights, with encounters being designed to be intimidating and scary rather than difficult. Bloober clearly wanted everyone to be able to see this story through to its conclusion.

A lack of exclusive titles for Xbox Series X|S has put an overly harsh spotlight on The Medium, and I hope it won't result in unfair criticism. No, this isn't a production up to the level you might expect from Naughty Dog or The Coalition. This is an indie game that's performing on the biggest stage, and for the most part it's put on quite the show.

Version tested: Xbox Series X. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for this The Medium review. The Medium is available for Xbox Series X, Xbox Series S, and PC (via Steam and Epic Games Store).

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