Split in the Worst Way
The ability to connect with the dead: a long regarded skill given to those who are blessed with the capability and long desired by those who believe in it. In the eyes of believers it’s a chance to reconnect with loved ones gone from our mortal reality and receive a sense of closure that may not have been achieved. For the mediums, it’s a duty to deliver peace to souls who may have left too soon, and to spread their word before they move on. For Marianne, being a medium was not a choice that was given to her. When people believe crossing over to be a serene and surreal experience, the other side for Marianne is cold, stressful, and unwelcoming: which describes my experience with The Medium quite well.
“It all starts with a dead girl” is the first piece to a long, arduous puzzle in the mind of Marianne. Stricken by a recurring dream that vividly paints the murder of a young girl on an unknown pier, Marianne is given a mysterious call to explore the ruins of an abandoned resort to seek the truth behind her dream. While venturing in blindly, her powers as a medium will soon reveal the past nature of the desolate resort and the strands of time that will tie Marianne to secrets she never knew.
If there’s one thing The Medium has been banking on since it’s first rumblings back in 2012, it’s the design of split worlds whilst playing simultaneously in both areas. Marianne’s powers as a medium allow her to phase and connect through both realities, and the main focus of gameplay flows through this mechanic. Given The Medium was shelved for years because this concept was too stressful for the seventh generation of consoles, it’s amazing to see it in motion and is pretty impressive. Cutscenes will play out with both realities present with events happening on one side but not the other, and an expansive amount of puzzles dive deep into the use of the dual-realities. The Medium‘s main draw is a good one, and it was very interesting seeing the ideas used to expand Marianne’s abilities throughout the story.
It’s when we get into the story that my love for the game starts to dwindle. As a fan of walking simulators and visual novels, I understand that sprawling gameplay achievements aren’t needed as long as the story is worth the time spent. As The Medium progressed further I started to figure that the dual-reality schtick was indeed the main focus and almost the only thing keeping this project afloat because man, this story is not good. I’ll start with the first big issue: I could not care less for Marianne.
The Medium spends the majority of its 8 hour story very slowly piecing together the past and present of Marianne while shrouding almost every piece of necessary information in the dark: the “dead girl” in the opening scene, Marianne’s past, who and Marianne is really at all. The player isn’t given a real reason to care for this story other than, “Marianne has a recurring bad dream, we’re not going to elaborate on why this is necessary, but we need you to trust us that you want to find out why.” This can be a very tall order when we’re given a protagonist with nothing but a name and a neat power that seems to inflict pain on her.
While Marianne spends time at the abandoned resort, Niwa, she will help wandering souls in the alternate reality be set free from their painful shackles. You’ll learn the painful and disturbing past of the resort through the eyes of the people who were present during its demise, and while the puzzles and collectibles do a good job crossings T’s and dotting I’s, these stories provide much more interest and reasons to continue then our main character. There were multiple moments in the story where Marianne could’ve been replaced with anyone, literally anyone, and The Medium would have lost zero emotional weight from her disappearance.
Marianne’s time in Niwa does run into a few performance problems. While I won’t be speaking into any graphical or FPS issues as my computer is more towards the minimum requirements for The Medium, I did run into multiple times where the game would crash, notably during one cutscene where it crashed multiple times at the same moment and skipping the cutscene was the only way around the issue. These issues may vary dependent on console play or PC setup, so take it with a grain of salt. (I tested this on an Xbox Series X. Its framerate is mostly stable and it’s very pretty. -Demetri)
The souls to save in the alternate reality are trapped by hellish looking creatures, cast together by the emotional tear of one’s torment and given a physical body to stalk and prey on others. These monsters are super cool in design, feeling very home in a Silent Hill-like universe and sporting some amazing lines about playing dress-up and having Marianne be the dress. It’s creepy, ridiculous, and stirring, which makes the moments where Marianne must avoid them at all costs even more tense.
I’m just mad that The Medium did most of these monsters dirty. Some monsters are only seen from a distance and you never interact with them, one monster is seen only in cutscenes and there’s no use of it outside of moving the plot, and the main monster’s boss fight, if you can call it that, is woefully anti-climatic and kills off any cool points that were received as it stalked and taunted you throughout the story.
It doesn’t help that not only is the final confrontation a sour one, but the ending of The Medium looks to stick the landing and gracefully snaps both ankles on impact. Every time I see a movie or game studio pull an ending like this I immediately think one of two things: they either could not decide on a concrete resolution, or they are stretching the story to a sequel or DLC, and every time I slap my head and sigh knowing I spent hours on a story that couldn’t give me an actual ending. It’s not an artistically cool thing to do anymore, it comes off as lazy or greedy, and for a title that has spent nearly 10 years getting to this point it’s miserably disappointing.
But the biggest offender of this story wasn’t the ending. Now I’ll try not to dive too hard into spoiler territory, but there is one character that veers The Medium into the uncomfortable territory of sexual abuse, and what this character does is abhorrent and unforgivable. We are then side-tracked to another medium named Thomas, who coincidentally is given a story and a reason to care within 15 minutes of seeing him, thus giving Thomas more emotional weight then Marianne has received so far. Thomas reaches into the alternate reality of this character, and The Medium takes almost a hour to craft a jarring story about how this character suffered emotional abuse from a family member, as well as losing loved ones to the harsh realities of World War II.
But then the story turns to how this character was helping a Jewish fugitive (look how good this sex offender is!) and how the actions that transpired with his Nazi family member and the events that carved this turmoil and torment in this character’s childhood have shaped him into what he is today. The Medium takes roughly 12% of its runtime to try to make you feel sorry for someone who sexually abused someone who is not of age, and uh. That’s not a good look. Thankfully Thomas does not buy the reasoning in this man’s head as to why this character justifies what they did, but it’s overall just a really gross section of the game that should’ve been done away with.
It sucks seeing a game I was genuinely excited to play take such a sharp turn into the mud, but The Medium feels like a tech demo for their dual-reality format that forgot everything else needed to make the game worth your time. And it sucks because the dual-realities is such a neat concept and Bloober Team does a lot of great things with it, but it is absolutely wasted on an unbearably bland protagonist, a sluggish and lethargic plot, and a crash landing of an ending that does not respect the journey the player took to get there.
Reviewed on XBOX Game Pass (PC)