The survival horror genre celebrated a golden age under the PlayStation 2, but nowadays it seems as if these games are becoming an endangered species. A few titles like The Evil Within and recent Resident Evil remakes do a good job at keeping the dream alive, but let’s face it: That distinct flavour of terror always becomes diluted with too many jump scares and a stronger focus on action.
Sure, the best survival horror franchises sometimes include combat and strong scares, but it’s a deep story, the vulnerability of their protagonists and a carefully-tailored atmosphere that puts them in a different league. These games thrive on a careful balance between these components which makes them very difficult to get right, and notoriously easy to mess up. It’s no wonder why studios try to avoid them.
Thankfully we have horror enthusiasts like Bloober Team who obviously have a keen insight into what makes these games tick, and they have put this into practice with their latest release, The Medium. I had a great play-through with The Medium because this game is very much a modern and cinematic survival horror title, but it consistently stays faithful to the classic building blocks of this genre.
It’s rare to see a medium so well done
Okay, I promise not to use any more steakhouse puns… or maybe I will do just one more. Don’t know, let’s see how it goes.
In this game players mostly take on the role of Marianne, a ghost whisperer who can somehow manifest an astral form of herself into a spiritual realm between life and death. As you can imagine, it is a world teeming with lost souls who remain trapped due to ‘unfinished business’. Marianne therefore uses her powers to set them free by fixing their worries in the real world.
The story kicks off when our girl receives a mysterious phone call from a man who calls himself Thomas. This guy, who sounds like he could be Hannibal Lecters’s creepy brother, tells Marianne that he can explain not just her supernatural ability to communicate with the dead, but also the true meaning behind her recurring nightmare.
Creepy Thomas further informs Marianne that her answers lie in Niwa, an abandoned workers’ family resort situated in Poland. This place has a dark, secret history, and she will only understand the true nature of her powers by meeting Thomas there. On that note, the game’s opening prologue doesn’t overtly say whether or not Marianne is Polish herself, but let’s assume she is anyway.
So Marianne gets on the phone and hires a small team of expert paranormal investigators as well as the most highly-recommended supernatural mercenaries with specialised phasmaphobic weaponry. She also recruits a team of scientists with sophisticated ectoplasm detection equipment, and packs in a small holstered pistol just in case.
Like the world’s most stereotypical horror protagonist, Marianne instead hops on her motorbike and drives out to the forsaken installation in the middle of nowhere, unarmed and completely alone. She didn’t even bring along a flashlight! As a surprise to no one, Niwa has been abandoned for decades, and Thomas is nowhere to be found, but our hero decides to take a look around anyway.
Why, just WHY!?
Existing in two worlds, and not living in either
While the The Medium relies on a painfully obvious cliché to set up, the rest of the game turned out to be thrilling, spooky adventure that shows Bloober Team’s genuine talent for this kind of storytelling. Crucial moments in the plot are told through cut scenes that use masterful cinematography, and all the main characters are brought to life by a well-chosen ensemble of voice actors.
I particularly appreciated the talent of Kelly Burke, the actress that plays Marianne. I have played too many characters in horror games that are left to crumble into a whiny, whimpering mess during moments of fear or anger. Burke’s more subtle and restrained performance, however, ensured that her character always felt relatable and never became annoying.
The most palpable inspiration for The Medium’s basic gameplay is the early Silent Hill games because the levels likewise function as maze-like obstacle courses. Since being abandoned, the Niwa resort has fallen into a dilapidated state so the player is on a perpetual hunt to find keys, bolt cutters, and whatever else to make their way around.
However, whereas the ‘otherworld’ in Silent Hill could manifest unexpectedly, Blooper Team have taken a somewhat different approach with this game mechanic. In The Medium, Marianne can use mirrors to slip in and out of the spectral realm at will, which adds a sort of meta layer both to how the player engages with the environments and puzzles.
For example, a common objective in the game was to restore power to a switch that would activate a pump station, or open a security door. In these moments a solution might lie in the spiritual realm where the switch’s macabre, fleshy counterpart could be powered with spiritual energy, and thereby restore its functionality.
While this energy isn’t just lying around, Marianne can create a fount of spiritual force by helping spirits pass on or by repairing objects with potent spiritual memories. It is also in these otherworldly tasks that the game imparts stories by some of Niwa’s deceased residents which help the player piece together what went down in this place.
If, like me, you are still having PTSD after that Shakespeare book puzzle from Silent Hill 3, rest assured that The Medium’s brainteasers are based more in practicable problem solving rather than abstract deduction. In this way the game stays more focused on telling its story, and time is never wasted on drawn out or tangential objectives.
It all ends… IN ME!!
Bloober Team’s commitment to providing a true survival horror experience also shows in how few enemies and jump scares they built into their game. To be sure, there was one or two moments that scared the utter crap out of me (and sent the cat flying off my lap), but they far and few between.
This is not to say that Marianne’s trek through Niwa will be a walk in the park. An extremely malevolent entity known as The Maw stalks this place, and while it isn’t particularly grotesque compared to monsters we have faced in other games, it is easily one of the scariest. This is thanks to a very good combination of sound design and Troy Baker who provides the spine-tingling voice of this abomination.
In the segments where Marianne confronts the Maw, the player will have to control her breathing and draw on stealth gameplay to slip away unseen. In other sequences it is already too late, and she has to run for her life in thrilling chase sequences with the demon hot on her heels. It is insanely exciting and terrifying at the same time.
The death of beauty
The Medium looks stunning with some incredible visual tech working underneath the hood, and I have no reservations in calling it an Unreal Engine 4 masterpiece. The game uses razor sharp, high definition textures to render both the main character and the world around her in excruciating detail, and you can even add ray traced lighting if you GPU is up to the task.
The results are that Niwa feels not just real, but like a place that is imparting its story as I moved through its desolate spaces and claustrophobic corridors. Some areas have been filled with rubble and overgrown with plants. Other rooms, like an abandoned office, are strewn with papers and used cigarette butts. It is all very melancholic, but also extremely immersive at the same time.
For those interested, my overdue-for-retirement GTX 1070 ran anywhere from 38 to about 55 frames per second on mostly ultra settings. I switched on ray tracing for a laugh causing my GPU to start screaming in pain, and it threatened to leak my Google search history if I didn’t turn it off, so that was the end of that.
The final treat is how the spirit realm has received an equally detailed visual design, but with a completely different tone. This world draws its inspiration from the haunting work of famed artist Zdzislaw Beksinski, and depicts an aura of death, abandonment and timelessness in stark relief.
These have always been central tropes in Beksinski’s art, and it compliments this game very well indeed. If anything, you could say Bloober Team are paying tribute to their fellow countryman.
The only complaint I have on a visual front is that the lip-syncing in cut scenes seems a little off. Not necessarily a huge problem, but it does make some of the more dramatic moments difficult to take seriously, and even a little funny.
It always start with a girl dying…
While Layers of Fear and Blair Witch were not necessarily bad games, Bloober Team have obviously paid attention to constructive criticism, and refined their craft since these earlier attempts. It’s not the good graphics, the interesting story or the terror-laden atmosphere that makes their latest game an engaging horror romp. The experience lies in how these elements come together.
The Medium is a rare gem which celebrates how survival horror evolved the techniques of story-telling in video games, and demonstrates what can be achieved for this genre on modern hardware. For those who insist that this genre died after Silent Hill 4, let me have the pleasure of telling them that they are finally wrong.
- Superb visual design
- Horrifying main villain
- Brilliant atmosphere
- Good voice acting
- Engaging puzzles
- Lyp synching
- A few bugs with navigation
- Some sections drag on a bit
Computer Specs: Windows 10, 64-bit PC using Nvidia GTX 1070, i5 4690K CPU, 16GB RAM – Played using an Xbox One controller