Apologies to Ernie Kovacs for stealing his joke, but our subject this week didn’t deserve a new one.
There are good games, there are bad games, and then there are games like The Medium. Up until now, I’ve had the luck and, frankly, the editorial discretion not to review a game like The Medium on this site. I don’t usually like to spend a whole lot of time on writing up games I feel didn’t respect mine. Generally speaking, if we write about failures we should spend our time dwelling on the interesting failures, since there’s much more to chew on there. But we’ll be discussing The Medium anyway, because there are larger issues surrounding the game and the genre it operates in that are at least worth a look, and perhaps it’s worth some words laying out why, when looking over the incredibly bifurcated reviews of this game out there, you should trust the one-star reviews instead of the five.
This is made more aggravating by the fact that The Medium was clearly made by a team of very hard-working people of no small talent at a number of the technical processes of making a video game; the graphics are excellent, the art design mostly on point, the character modeling quite good, and even the voice acting (and unsurprisingly, one character in particular voiced by Troy Baker) are all trying to make this project work. They’re dragged down, unfortunately, by absolute dereliction of duty on the narrative and scenario design fronts — the writing and the gameplay.
Of the two, the scenario design is more important, though they’re closely intertwined. In The Medium you’re looking at a pretty straightforward point-and-click adventure game (modified for controller, so move-and-press-A) punctuated by stealth segments and “action” segments; later in the game, the game will force you to do puzzling during the stealth sequences, which is supposed to heighten the tension and combine the gameplay mechanics that you learned separately. Unfortunately, the stealth sequences are a disaster. The enemy is the same every time — an invisible creature called the Maw who, when you’re caught, will yank you into a one-hit kill cutscene and dispose of you. The cutscene’s about 12 seconds long from grab to Press Button to Reload, unskippable, and has only one animation for the entire game. Fine. Difficult to do a stealth section when you can only vaguely determine where the monster is (you can get an outline of the Maw when you get very close using your ghost vision and you also get a general proximity and direction arrow), but you’re not Solid Snake and that’s where this game’s difficulty is supposed to come from. You can crouch so that the Maw can’t hear you moving so well, and hold your breath so that it can’t hear you breathing when it’s very close. For some reason by default these are bound to L3 and R3 respectively — clicking in the thumbsticks — but you can, and should, rebind them. You’ll learn soon by trial and error that you don’t want to move and hold your breath at the same time, because Marianne, our hero, slows down to an absolute crawl for some reason.
You’ll be learning a lot by trial and error, frankly, because each stealth section in the game has one specific way to complete it and the game is going to make you play it over and over and over until you figure out what it is. This is the worst sort of set-piece backsolving — they came up with the cool idea of what would happen in the scene if this were a movie, and then designed their encounters backwards from the cool idea into a series of hoops for the player to jump through with no handholding. While fine in the beginning when the hoop is “go the other way around this table while the Maw searches for you,” it gets worse as the game goes on and the Maw starts breaking its established rules to enforce the setpiece the section wants to see accomplished. This gets real bad in the old ruins stealth sequence, where without warning the Maw stops patrolling and simply stands in front of the exit to the screen, completely unlureable or baitable. What the game wants you to do is distract the creature by loosening a winch and dropping some boxes to the ground — and by god, the game will get what it wants, no matter how long you try to tempt it away or slip by it and get instakilled. The worst incidence of this hands-down, though, is the final “confrontation” with the Maw, where it simply ignores all previously-established rules, runs straight to you and kills you unless you use a puzzle mechanic you’ve never been tutorialized on in stealth to very specifically lure him off (in a way that makes no in-game sense either, but we’ll get to that), pass a QTE during the previously-inviolate death animation, and then run over and hit a button across the room. This would all be bad enough if the Maw didn’t kick this sequence off with a 20-second, unskippable in-engine monologue that you have to rewatch every single time until you figure out what the game is asking you to do.
This leaves the “action” sequences — the ones where Marianne is just running away from the Maw because unlike the male character you play as intermittently, Marianne is not allowed to have her spirit abilities depicted as imposing her will, merely as defense mechanisms — as the only places where the game truly shines. That’s kind of messed up considering forced flight sequences that you spend running towards the camera away from a one-hit kill hazard are generally the worst parts of any of these games, but this is where the art direction on the game really gets a chance to shine. The best single part of The Medium is the second big escape from the Maw, where Marianne is bouncing between the real world and the spirit world and the setting is flickering from the woods of Poland to the Chernobogian hellscape of the spirit world. Occasionally the spirit world’s design gets bogged down by the real world architecture it’s trying to mimic — any puzzle section involving both worlds has this issue — but here the level designers and artists are allowed to really let loose and give the player some great visuals (thankfully for this bit you’re running with the camera facing where you’re going).
Now, does the sequence working depend on the rules of how Marianne interacts with the spirit world arbitrarily changing on the fly for the convenience of the scene? Yes, but that’s true of the entire game — sometimes Marianne can switch between the real world and the spirit world with her entire body using mirrors, sometimes her real world body is anchored while the soul world body can wander off, and sometimes she simply can’t go into the spirit world at all. Which set of rules applies is entirely arbitrary and the game makes no attempt to explain it, which, thank god, given what they do try to explain.
Warning: This section will feature major spoilers from the middle and late game of The Medium.
So, there’s a content warning on the front of the game which is exceptionally vague as to what it’s trying to content-warn you against (actually, it’s a trigger warning, not a content warning, which might be your first clue something is up). That thing is child rape, which the game handles exceptionally poorly, though not in the ways you’d perhaps expect from a content warning on a horror game. Nothing is depicted, graphically or otherwise, and the subject is both talked around and about with the level of seriousness and subtlety as you’d see on, say, maybe a network TV drama. The child rape exists for three primary reasons. The first is to reinforce the overall thematic thrust of The Medium’s story, which is that received trauma — you know, inner demons — are actual, real demons that the abused cannot defeat and which will force them to perform abuse themselves. The writers decided to take the cycle of abuse metaphor and make it, in the world of their game, an empirical and unbreakable iron law that can only be broken by an angry dad stomping into your head while sneering one liners and getting revenge or a pretty sad lady forgiving you in death, both doing so after you’ve propagated the cycle to at least a few victims. Bleak stuff! And poorly, boringly done. The second is to give the secret main character of The Medium, Thomas, the righteous excuse he needs to have his spirit form kill the abuser in his own mind, because the victim is one of his daughters. Whereas Marianne’s use of spirit powers is mainly restricted to turning on fuseboxes and shielding herself from clouds of evil butterflies, Thomas is a spirit world pyromancer who gets to burn obstacles away and destroy tentacles with his fire shield, which has a parry mechanic, while bragging about how he’s really gonna fuck this guy up. This is the actual plot of the game, of which Marianne spends all her time unearthing echoes and ghosts — cool but tastefully damaged guy Thomas who escaped from the horrifying Soviet testing labs and built a family on the run, staying one step ahead of the bad guys until he was betrayed from within.
Which brings us to the third reason, the political score-settling, which is pathetic but wouldn’t be worth spending time on if it weren’t so intrusive. The Medium comes from a Polish studio that wants to continue doing business in Poland in 2021, so it’s not some huge surprise that Marianne’s virtuous dead adopted father in the beginning was a Solidarity organizer (a Polish worker’s movement in the seventies and eighties that has been appropriated by the country’s current far-right government as a populist symbol) complete with a wall of pins which Marianne glowingly describes as evidence of his goodness. It’s doubly unsurprising that of the two main antagonists in the game who are not The Maw, the first is a whiny effete ivory tower college professor/artist/opera composer who bitterly complains about being let go for being too liberal and who turns out to be the above-mentioned serial child rapist, and the second is a brutal security services psychopath who had his father fraudulently executed for stealing from the meat quotas and (just so you don’t get the wrong idea about what kind of bad cop he might be) ends every other sentence with “comrade.” The game doesn’t have a criticism to make of either liberalism or communism — there’s no way to examine the horrors of either in the intensely personal psychodramas that define the horror genre; even if there was, you certainly wouldn’t find those critiques here, while pressing LB to Parry. No, their only purpose is to get those culture war punches in. That’s the studio’s right as creators, and frankly it’d be easily overlooked…if the game spent fewer than two and a half hours doing so during some of the worst gameplay I’ve experienced in a title that got space in something even as moderately visible as the Microsoft Series X launch sizzle reel.
To run through a couple final things: the game performed like garbage for me on a GeForce 1060, but it’ll soon be time for me to upgrade this rig entirely; a 1060 is literally min-spec for the title. Still, there have been reports of spotty performance on better hardware, and I actually had some of my worst performance outside of the split-screen sections. The game’s soundtrack is by Akira Yamaoka, but the game goes without music for the vast majority of its runtime with very occasional short ambient tracks only to beat you over the head with a classic Yamaoka/McGlynn guitars-drums-and-vocals collaboration in the last set of rooms in the game at a completely inappropriate moment, as if someone told them to use it or lose it. The game’s ending is openly insulting in the “cut to black, ambiguous gunshot” genre.
A resounding disappointment. The game has a $50 price point for about 10 hours of content, which might be a stretch for some even if the content was fully on-point. I’d say wait for a sale, but I can’t actually give you a price point I’d be willing to buy this again at. Maybe $5 as part of a bundle? Honestly, just replay the original Silent Hill games or, if you have a VR rig, look into Lies Beneath, which I can’t review here because I don’t have a VR headset but which I’m having a hell of a time watching other creators stream.
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