One of the most-discussed titles we revealed in 2020 was The Medium, a psychological horror game developed by Polish developer Bloober Team, coming exclusively to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox Game Pass. Bloober Team has made its name with well-received and envelope-pushing horror games, including Observer, Layers of Fear, and Blair Witch. Each of these games has a central theme that drives its creative and technological design and The Medium continues that tradition with a mechanic the team is calling “dual reality gameplay.” I recently had the chance to play the first few hours of The Medium and found it to be a wholly unique experience that I can’t wait to explore more.
“It all starts with a dead girl…” was the first spoken line of the game, accompanied by a scene of a girl running through the woods while being chased by an unseen pursuer. The line was delivered by Marianne, the titular medium who has returned to her home in Krakow to bury her foster father Jack, who conveniently owns a funeral home. I was tasked with finding Jack’s favorite tip clip in order to prep him for his funeral, with a brief side-trip to feed the meowing cat strolling around the apartment (achievement unlocked!).
As I explored the apartment that Jack and Marianne shared, it became clear that The Medium is the type of game that greatly rewards the curious, as the news clippings and letters I found throughout the apartment immediately helped to build the game’s world and expand its deepening lore. The game’s fixed camera and adventure game trappings felt like a throwback to old school psychological horror games like Alone in the Dark, in which one’s attention to detail and puzzle-solving skills are more important than quick reflexes. While The Medium does an excellent job of creating a foreboding atmosphere and grounding the player in its supernatural world, exploring and finding collectibles like letters, postcards, and children’s drawings make it feel that much more resonant.
After a bit more exploration, I was prompted to use Marianne’s Insight to find Jack’s tie clip in his room. Mapped to the left bumper, Insight comes in handy when you’ve explored and area and feel like there’s a bit more or when you’re required to follow the path of a spirit (more on that later). After finding Jack’s tie clip and spending a few moments developing an old photograph, I headed downstairs to the funeral home, where I had to track down a key to open the cellar where the bodies were prepped.
Upon putting Jack’s tie clip on his lifeless body, the lights began to flicker in the cellar and Marianne not-so-subtly instructed me to head upstairs. Once I made it back up to the funeral home’s office, I got the first taste of The Medium’s dual reality gameplay. While the top half of the screen showed Marianne in the empty funeral home office, the bottom half presented a whole new world, where wind blew across a brown, desiccated landscape and a lone figure rummaged through a version of the office’s desk.
In the lexicon of The Medium, this is the Spirit World (the “normal” one is called the Material World) and it’s where Marianne can communicate with the dead to help them pass into the afterlife. It only took a moment to realize that this sad-looking figure was Jack, who was frantically looking for his notebook while worrying about an upcoming surgery (early hinted at as the reason he died). Once the now white-haired Marianne calmed him down, he was able to cross over to the afterlife and dissipated into ashes before my eyes. As Marianne says after this scene ends, she’s always felt divided, torn between these two realities.
Once our work was done, the phone on the desk rang. The caller identified himself as Thomas, and he said that he knows what Marianne is. He needs her help and promised that he could give her the answers she’s been looking for all these years. Marianne balked at first, but Thomas echoed her earlier line that “It all begins with a dead girl…” and she immediately agreed to come meet him at the Niwa Workers Resort, which is in the Niwa forest that the girl ran through in the game’s opening scene. And that’s where The Medium truly kicks off: pulling up to the gate of the abandoned Niwa Worker’s Resort.
Making my way through the guard post and over the wall, I found some collectables that alluded to the Niwa Massacre, which Marianne thought was just an urban legend involving crazed workers and an ancient curse (I’m gonna hazard a guess and say that there might be some truth there). Once I made my way into the beautifully rendered Niwa Forest, I ran into an old, yet still very effective, horror trope: a ball rolling from out of nowhere, accompanied by the ethereal laughter of child. Seriously, that will never not be creepy.
Using my Insight, I was able to see a child’s footprints on the ground and follow them through the woods. I made my way to an abandoned fort, where the Material and Spirit Worlds split once again. It was here that I encountered another one of The Medium’s many mechanics. Marianne came to a gate that could not be opened in either world, so I couldn’t progress. However, a bit of exploration revealed an altar glowing with white light in the Spirit World, which I could absorb and release (with the right trigger) to charge the gate connection. Charging it in the Spirit World did the same thing in the Material World, so Marianne was able to open it and progress to the Niwa Hotel, which she said has a powerful aura that was “like a landfill of memories and emotions, none of them good.”
As I walked up to the front door, a nearby payphone started to ring. Although there was no one there when I answered, I was prompted to use my Insight to find an Echo. While holding down the left bumper, I rotated the object until I spotted a glowing crack in it. Staying on the crack revealed a previous conversation, showing that even objects have auras that can be revealed to flesh out more of the game’s deep backstory. I discovered this truth again when I found a bloody shoe just inside the door. Finding the Echo revealed the screams running away from something awful. As it turns out, the Niwa Massacre was a real event.
After a bit of exploration filled in more and more of the narrative cracks with postcards, letters, and magazines, I made my way into the lobby of the hotel, where I found the front desk bell ringing on its own. Totally not ominous at all! As I was about to try hitting the bell’s button on my own, that ball came bouncing down the stairs again. Upon picking it up, the world split again. This time, I was greeted by the ball I saw earlier bouncing down a nearby staircase.
When I picked it up, I heard a child’s voice behind me. “Will you play with me? It’s been so long since I played with anyone.” I turned to see a one-armed little girl with a gaping hole in the side of her chest and what appeared to be leaves or overgrowth on part of her back. It was pretty clear that she had been dead for a long time. She introduced herself as Sadness (because she can’t remember her real name) and it seemed like she might have some information on where Marianne could find Thomas. So I made a deal with her: help me find Thomas and I’d play with her.
She agreed and bounded up the nearby flight of stairs, but I was blocked from following her because they were broken. Thankfully, the elevator nearby still worked, so I hopped in and headed up to the second floor. Unfortunately, the elevator stalled on the first floor and I was not able to progress in the Material World. However, I was able to try out another one of Marianne’s powers: an Out of Body Experience.
By holding down the B button, I was able to take control of just the Marianne in the Spirit World while Material World Marianne stayed put. This allowed me to explore the first floor, where I eventually found another one of those white altars. Staying out of body for too long will make Spirit World Marianne disappear, so I had to hightail it over to the altar and return to charge up the elevator. Once I did, Marianne was able to head up to the second floor.
As I walked down a long hallway, I heard an odd buzzing coming from ahead. Suddenly, a swarm of moths came buzzing down the hallway in the Spirit World. In order to protect the Marianne in the Spirit World, I needed to hold down the right bumper to bring up a shield of light that allowed me to pass through them. This came in handy several times throughout the level, including when I had to sprint (by holding down the left trigger) through another hallway full of them.
After making my way through the moths, I found a room that contained what appeared to be white ashes floating in the air. As Marianne picked up an item in the Material World, I was able to rotate the left stick to bring the ashes together into human forms. These are called Memory Shards, and they provide a closer look at an interaction between two characters. As with everything else in The Medium, these serve to provide context and exposition, allowing you to gradually piece together multiple threads of the backstory in an effort to solve the mystery of the Niwa Massacre.
It was here that I also found a razor, which is used throughout the game to let Marianne cut through Spirit World barricades (which look a lot like stretched-out dried flesh) to progress through levels. After making my way through more moth swarms and obstacles (as well as a legit jump scare that made me yell), I came to what seemed to be the office of the manager of the Niwa Worker’s Resort. Sadness met me there, but ominously refused to come through the door, choosing to disappear instead.
After tracking down some keys and using a neat time-rewind mechanic to open a hidden door, I found myself in a hidden back room that featured books on the supernatural and more photos to develop. Upon developing them, Marianne was shocked to find that the photos were of her, as were the slides that rapidly began flicking through a nearby projector. Suddenly, a bizarre humanoid creature appeared, grabbing Marianne with long, clawed fingers. Using the light blast to get away, I was suddenly thrust into the Spirit World, being chased through corridors by the shrieking creature before finally getting to a light altar.
As I headed into the next room, I saw the creature off in the distance. This allowed me the chance to check out the game’s stealth mechanic. Clicking the left stick made Marianne crouch, and she slowly moved from cover to cover as the monster moved around the room. Since the creature could not see in the Material World, silence was key, so I could click the right stick to cover Marianne’s mouth when it got near. It was a truly intense experience and one that was repeated several times over my time with the game (in later areas in the Material World, the creature was just a shadow, ratcheting up the intensity).
I finally got away from the creature and reconnected with Sadness, who told me that I needed to find my way into the hotel’s day room to find out more. Of course, that was easier said than done, so I explored another wing of the hotel to gain entry. In this area, I was introduced to a new mechanic, in which Marianne used mirrors to hop back and forth between the Spirit World and the Material World as she figured out the identities of some of the deceased hotel residents. This area brought together some memorable environmental puzzles, which ultimately led me to obtain the bolt cutters I needed to enter the day room.
I’d tell you what happened in the day room and the twist that the story took, but I think it’s ultimately something that you’re better off experiencing for yourself. During my time with The Medium, it became clear that the game is Bloober Team’s largest and most ambitious project to date. The game’s dual reality mechanic is really interesting (and part of why they created the game specifically to take advantage of the power of Xbox Series X) and it looks really good, with 4K resolution, ray-tracing technology, and a seamless, loading screen-free cinematic experience. I honestly can’t wait to play more of it.
Thankfully, we won’t have to wait long. The Medium is now available for pre-order and will launch January 28 for Xbox Series X|S and PC. Best of all, it will also be available on day one with Xbox Game Pass.