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Microsoft's first proper next-gen title is Bloober Team's new horror game, The Medium - or at least it was meant to be a horror game. Those elements seem to have been lost on me, along with any next-gen elements that the game might've been aiming to deliver.
You take on the role of Marianne, a medium who is called by a mysterious figure to investigate an abandoned hotel, or maybe to investigate a burned-down house? Or perhaps it was to investigate World War II crimes? Honestly, I'm not too sure what the narrative here is, exactly, but it involves demons and another reality. Those two things, I can be certain of.
One of the key selling points for The Medium is the dual-reality gameplay, which utilises the next-gen SSDs of the Xbox Series X and S to run. This is essentially two layers of gameplay running simultaneously on top of one another. You have the normal reality, which is where the majority of the game takes place; and then you have the spiritual reality, where more of the supernatural elements take place.
Now this dual-reality concept is a really interesting idea and Bloober Team makes the most of the consoles superbly to run it; but there's actually very little freedom to swap between worlds in the game. The dual-reality moments are all scripted, so for the most part you can't hop freely between the two worlds. And even in those scripted moments, when it comes to solving puzzles to progress there's hardly anything here that impresses enough to convey the impression that this is a proper next-gen game. The switching between realities are just so static, so when you compare them to the gameplay demos of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, the freedom in switching between the alternate realities in Sony's game, (which highlights the speeds and power of the next-gen machines) leaves The Medium feeling very old fashioned.
As a medium, Marianne has a few abilities available which help you solve the puzzles across the game. One of these abilities is called 'Insight', which highlights any items of interest near you that you can either follow or interact with. A useful ability for sure, but it can be tough to see what items are highlighted and is often more frustrating than helpful. Near the beginning of the game, I spent about 15 minutes just walking around in circles, trying to find an item that I kept missing due to it not being significantly highlighted.
More abilities come into play when the dual-reality moments hit, such as the 'Out of Body' ability, which lets you detach your spirit self from your human self, so you can explore the spirit world solo. You also have 'Spirit Shield' so you can travel past evil spirit moths; and 'Spirit Blast', which you mainly use to start power generators. They all play a part in progress, but are also all pretty mundane, to say the least, and nothing beyond base expectations for such a game.
Narratively speaking, The Medium is just one hell of a messy story. It's actually a bit difficult to put into words why this is so messy without sounding like a mess myself. There are simply too many things at play here. One moment you're investigating what happened to the occupants of an abandoned hotel, and the next you're exploring the story of a girl who was in hiding during WW2. Just a short while later, you're learning about some government agent who is obsessed with... something that I can't recall. It just feels like Bloober couldn't make up its mind on what story they wanted to tell in The Medium, so they just told them all.
But there was one constant in all this, and that was the big bad voiced by Troy Baker. The voice acting I'll delve into in a moment, but let's focus on the monster of The Medium here. This creature is pretty much in keeping with the rest of the game in that it's quite a boring one. The fact that this monster didn't in the slightest raise my heartbeat from its average resting rate is pretty telling here. In fact, the game as a whole did little to nothing to scare me - which seems like a distinct failure, given it's being billed as a horror game. There was one jump scare which got me, but that's an extremely cheap scare tactic. The one positive takeaway I have to say about the monster, though, is that I enjoyed its Pan's Labyrinth-esque design.
Back to the voice acting. While the cast here delivers good performances, I do have to question why all of these characters are American despite the game being set in Poland? With some of the game's plot making the Polish setting pretty integral, I'm curious as to why the cast doesn't feature voice actors who are Polish themselves. It's something that happens time and time again in Western media - from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to Valkyrie and so much more. It's a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but something that does bring down the game for me.
There are some good, if fairly familiar elements to The Medium. The semi-fixed cameras invoke a feeling of nostalgia for classic horror games, like Silent Hill and Resident Evil. Elements of the soundtrack have a satisfying 1980s feel to them, and the concept of the dual-realities is genuinely interesting even if it's imperfectly executed. Buried underneath the messy narrative and the mundane gameplay, there's a good game in here, somewhere.
But for the most part, The Medium is a game that I'm very happy to put behind me and never think about again. For any fans of horror, I would firmly recommend you give this game a miss.
Pros: A sense of nostalgia with the camera and soundtrack, dual-realities is a compelling concept
Cons: Not a scary game, perfunctory gameplay that grows tedious, incredibly messy narrative, lacks any 'next-gen' flair
For fans of: Old-school classic horror games - although you're recommended to simply replay those, rather than give this newer title your time
The Medium is released for PC and Xbox Series X/S on January 28th. Review code for Xbox Series X was provided by the publisher. Find a complete guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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