The first major Xbox Series X exclusive is finally out, featuring a special split-screen display that’s only possible on next gen.
As much as Microsoft’s plan for the Xbox Series X/S seems to go against all previously accepted norms it does seem to be working. The new consoles enjoyed the best launch ever for Xbox hardware and attracted 18 million Game Pass subscribers. They not only did that with no exclusives but no games of any kind that run only on Xbox Series X/S and not also Xbox One. But with the release of The Medium that is no longer the case.
Although you’d imagine that distinction would be a welcome coup for publisher and developer Bloober Team, being the first major exclusive for the Xbox Series X/S immediately puts more pressure on the game than it can take. So while there are some technical tricks that would be impossible without an SSD we’d immediately forget any thoughts of this being a graphical powerhouse that will show off the full power of the new consoles.
We’d also abandon any notions that this is a spiritual successor to Silent Hill and other classic survival horrors, as you’d have to be of a very nervous disposition (or have an unnatural aversion to moths) to find anything in the game frightening, bar a couple of jump scares. The game does have other qualities, and an impressively ambitious approach to narrative, but they struggle to make up for the other failings.
The comparisons with Silent Hill come from the idea that that The Medium is a more psychological style of horror game (and that Akira Yamaoka worked on the soundtrack) and certainly it is very far away from shlock like Resident Evil. You play as Marianne, a former orphan who can see the spirit world and its denizens, and who becomes embroiled in the mystery surrounding a post-war holiday camp out in the rural backwaters.
The entire game is set in Poland, with the script relying heavily on the country’s history for some plot points, but weirdly no-one has a Polish accent and at first we thought Marianne meant she’d been adopted from America. That’s not the case though, it’s just that the English language voiceovers completely ignore the Polish setting, which immediately spoils the atmosphere – especially as there’s no way to listen to the Polish voice track with English subtitles.
As it is, the game opens with Marianne returning to her family home after the death of her foster father. It becomes evident that his spirit hasn’t moved on and so you’re introduced to her key ability to see and interact with the spirit world. This involves the screen splitting in two, sometimes vertically and sometimes horizontally, so that you can see both worlds at once.
The real and spirit worlds have layouts that are similar but different, with a desk in one being an altar like object in the other, or a door being open in one world but locked in another. Any veteran gamer will immediately recognise this as the light/dark world mechanic from Zelda: A Link To The Past, except in The Medium you have to navigate both worlds at once – with both versions of Marianne moving in tandem but stopping as soon as one of them is blocked.
As rich with potential as the concept may seem The Medium seems to instinctively opt for the least interesting and most obvious puzzles at any given time, as you flit between focusing on one world over the other to get through maze-like building layouts or do things like manipulate a clock face to change the appearance of the spirit world.
We’ve no idea how the logic on that is supposed to work, and we’re not sure the game does either, but it carries on throwing cliché after cliché at the gameplay, including a form of detective vision that highlights interactive objects, a spirit shield that is mostly used to survive swarms of demonic moths, and a psychic fireball that you have to charge up from certain locations in the spirit world.
There’s little real combat in the game and instead those fireballs are more frequently used to charge up the spirit world equivalent of a junction box or other electrical device, which seems just as silly in context as it sounds on paper. Sometimes though, objects can only be reached by fully entering the spirit world, causing the other screen to almost disappear and allowing you to move around freely for a few seconds without worrying about mirroring your movements in the real world.
The look of the afterlife is apparently modelled on the work of Zdzisław Beksiński, but the brown, dusty locations are more immediately reminiscent of cheap horror movies and Keanu Reeves’ otherwise unmemorable Constantine film and game tie-in. On a technical level the backdrops are often impressive, despite the fixed Resident Evil style camera angles, but the character models are usually much less so, with some very simplistic animation; there’s also a lot of texture pop-in when zooming in on objects.
At heart it’s just a fundamentally uninteresting vision of the netherworld, with most of the characters you meet not being fully aware of where they are and so usually only offering frustrating, circular conversations. Further into the game you take control of a second character as you explore the histories of various troubled spirits but the plot’s frequent change of focus comes across as more confusing than intriguing.
The Medium does attempt to tackle some serious subjects, including child abuse and PTSD, but never in any satisfying depth, such that the mundanity of the gameplay and the leaden pacing makes what is a barely 12-hour experience seem considerably longer. As a survival horror it’s never really scary and its attempts at psychological inquiry are stymied by a bland script and equally uninteresting puzzles.
Despite its next gen credentials, The Medium feels disappointingly old-fashioned and unexciting. Everything works as its intended – this isn’t a broken game, it’s just not a very interesting one. The storytelling ambitions are commendable but the execution is poor, with the story frequently feeling aimless and unengaging. In the end ‘medium’ seems a fairly generous description of the game’s qualities, in what is one of the more forgettable horror games of recent years.
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