An interesting story ruined by the hubris of a slow jog
Coming into The Medium, I found it very hard not to make Silent Hill 2 comparisons. On a conceptual level, they are very similar: a person is summoned to an abandoned town filled with ghouls and ghosts by a mysterious message from a strange person. Both games have twists and turns in their roughly 6–8 hour long journeys that will give you hope in one moment, and promptly destroy it with a revelation in another. Both games end up tackling some pretty seriously heavy subject matter that may leave squirming. Both have a phenomenal soundtrack made by Akira Yamaoka, with vocals done by the ever talented Mary Elizabeth McGlynn. The main difference between the two?
The Medium is a meandering mess of plotlines and puzzles, while Silent Hill is a horror-focused masterpiece.
Marianne’s strange summons to the Polish resort center of Niwa starts off promising. There is an allure to Marianne’s abilities as a medium; she gets to exist in both worlds (accompanied by split screen gameplay that causes performance issues!) and has the task of putting the spirits of the dead to rest. She does so at a leisurely pace that does not match the tension needed of a horror game. Her time is spent taking casual strolls through the abandoned halls of a post-massacre hell-scape, examining and admiring objects she finds that expand upon the events of the resort pre-murder spree. Her other passion is using her powers to find small cuts left behind by the dead in objects of power, which when focused upon, let her hear the conversations of the deceased. When she’s feeling spry, she’ll pick up her feet and bust into a light jog to run away from the two threats of the game; demon moths and a guy with too much time on his hands. There is not a single man, god, or eternal demon in this mortal coil that can force Marianne to pick up the pace and move if she isn’t feeling it. Even if the game would be better with a run button, Marianne rejects the myth of running, and choses to make the game longer because she does what she wants.
There are two primary threats you run into within the game, and they are both stupid. I don’t mean this in a mean, “oh gosh the game is bad!” way, I mean that they collectively share three brain cells.
The Medium game is the least scary horror game I’ve ever managed to finish. I counted exactly one jump scare within the entire game. Under normal circumstances, that’s completely fine; not every game needs to make you jump 30 feet into the air, but there is no climax or payoff for the “horrors”. There is almost no tension within the game. There are two primary threats you run into within the game, and they are both stupid. I don’t mean this in a mean, “oh gosh the game is bad!” way, I mean that they collectively share three brain cells. Your only two threats are the dead spirits of moths, and a giant bumbling monster man that refuses to react to anything that isn’t Marianne running up to him and giving him a nice snack and a big ol’ hug. Without the threat of death or failure, there is no tension in a horror game. Unfortunately, that means there is no moment of horror or dread within The Medium. The only scary thing about the game is its subject matter it tackles at times, and Marianne’s complete lack of will to move faster than three steps per hour.
Have I mentioned how much I hate how slow the game forces Marianne to move yet?
While it attempts to emulate the 90’s horror games it tries so hard to be, The Medium can only live in the shadow of its predecessors. It checks all the boxes invented by the greats; a story that tries to be more than it appears at first glance. Otherworldly beings that represent a facet of humanity. Notes to inspect in environments that give you backstory on the side character’s lives. Yet, The Medium never manages to improve on those games that came before it. The excellent atmosphere of the setting is ruined by the complete lack of tension. The shock and awe of the revelations of the story are brought to an abrupt halt by the awful pacing. The multitude of plot threads set up by the storytelling seem to go nowhere. The challenge of the puzzles is ripped apart by the linearity of the environments and the small areas they are contained in. Every good design choice is intertwined with a mechanic that is inserted to waste your time and extend the life of the game, and The Medium suffers greatly for it.
Horror game fans have it rough nowadays. Most of the behemoths of the genre are either dead or have been slumbering for years. The Medium seemed as if it could be a solid AA budget title that walks in the shoes of the juggernauts, but unfortunately, it failed to find its footing. It’s one advantage, the story, manages to putter out with one of the most unsatisfying endings I’ve ever experienced. If you manage to start the game and want to finish it to see some big payoff at the end, you’re in for an unfortunate time. Marianne’s final task was to put the game itself to rest, but unfortunately, both her and Bloober couldn’t give The Medium a strong sendoff.