Forget Layers of Fear -- Marianne the medium is ace.
The Medium is a big deal, the first new Microsoft-published Xbox Series console exclusive of 2021 (and 2020 for that matter) and an evolution of a Bloober Team development that first appeared with 2016’s Layers of Fear.
In its previous franchise, Bloober Team demonstrated it could do psychological horror well; the first-person affair relied on tension, a focused narrative and, most importantly, blank spaces in visual and audio design that you couldn’t help but fill in yourself. Anticipating the worst, you usually found that nothing eventuated from your trepidation. Layers of Fear 2 built upon this in some ways, but largely fell flat.
While The Medium is Bloober Team’s best title to date, it still carries the studio’s DNA and sometimes proves rough around the edges. At times, it can look as current-gen as anything; at others, you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at clipping or wonky animations.
Set in November 1999, The Medium is a departure from Bloober Team’s past works. It abandons a first-person perspective for a third-person one, focusing on the titular medium, Marianne. Our protagonist’s past is shrouded in mystery; an orphan, she survived a catastrophic fire to be placed in a series of new homes before finding a forever one, realising that she had the ability to commune with the departed during her ordeals.
Whereas Layers of Fear and its sequel wound a narrative around a largely silent playable character, Marianne takes centre stage in The Medium. She’s a great protagonist, someone who can crack wise during a tense situation and — at the same time — still be vulnerable and emotive, showing she’s in over her head. This shift to an identifiable hero-type plus an evolution in narrative only adds to the experience. Clad in a biker jacket, it’s hard not to draw comparisons to Marianne and to Resident Evil 2’s Claire Redfield.
Or, for that matter, to Resident Evil Code: Veronica’s Redfield. The Medium opts for fixed camera angles with a bit of cinematic flair, to some extent copying my favourite survival horror franchise’s first foray into 3D backgrounds and the enhancements thereby provided. It’s a brilliant decision by Bloober Team to use the hybrid camera to create a sense of unknown while at the same time allowing the development team the opportunity to draw your eye to certain things with a slight movement of the camera when you hit a certain point.
The Medium’s homages to genre works don’t end there; very early on, you’ll learn that Marianne has the ability to exist in two different plains at once. Straight up, this is Silent Hill territory, the familiar real-world mixed with a dark, foreboding – and very crimson and decayed — other-world; a macabre, twisted version of what you know and hold dear. The other-world is truly the world of the dead and oppressed, a place that Marianne is familiar with and is accustomed to enter in order to free the souls of those who aren’t quite ready to depart.
It’s in this setting that Bloober Team represents its best work to date, a haunting tale that not only shows the failings of mankind but equally manages to incorporate a decent Polish history lesson alongside it. Marianne will explore the real-world at times before dropping into a state of consciousness that lets her explore that and the other-world at the same time. When this happens, your screen will literally split and show you both perspectives — in real time — as they happen. It’s a clever twist on an established genre.
It admittedly takes a bit of getting used to. You’ll start off by wondering where to look – to the top or bottom of screen – before you realise it largely doesn’t matter. When your attention is necessary in a specific world, it’s pretty obvious – you’ll encounter a wall or blockage in one state of being that means you can’t progress in both at the same time. Here, puzzles rear their heads; if not, you can employ a tactic of Marianne’s that lets her fully drop into her other-world self – a time-limited, out of body experience – that then reveals your next task.
These puzzles sometimes rely on Marianne’s other abilities too – she’ll be able to find Spirit Wells in the other-world, drawing upon their powers to produce blasts to charge electrical puzzles, or a shield to guard from predatory creatures in the decayed landscapes of the dead. Thankfully, the split-world experience isn’t present for large sections of the game, a welcome breather that lets you settle down before having to dart your focus between realities. A final spirit power pops up near the end of the game and honestly feels ham-fisted and unnecessary.
Bouncing between realities means you’ll really have to have your display’s HDR settings properly turned, as dark sections in the real-world sometimes devolve into an unpenetrable cloak of black. Even with a calibrated system (or so I thought), I was forced to crank up in-game brightness in some areas. While that fixed my immediate problem, I usually found that trips back into the other-world became too bright and washed out as a result.
The Medium deals with some dark subject matter, and imagery in the other-world Niwa really suits. There’s less of a reliance on jump scares — though some exist — and more of a lean into amazing audio design that will keep you on your toes. World design is also top-notch, with visual clues drawing you to your next objective and with no real reliance on backtracking, even though the events of the game take place in a relatively small area. There are portions where a Mr. X-style baddie called The Maw will chase you about — so be warned if that’s a trigger — but ultimately, it’s the other stuff that the Maw does to you that’s far more unsettling.
Despite an improved narrative when compared to Layers of Fear, The Medium does drag on a bit — especially near its climax — and resorts to a couple lazier puzzles at around that same point. On the whole though, The Medium is a rather enjoyable experience, especially for those who are fans of any of the myriad survival horror franchises I’ve already mentioned.
Because of its macabre nature, The Medium won’t be for everyone — and certainly isn’t a killer Xbox app — but it’s definitely worth a try if you’re an Xbox Game Pass subscriber. The Medium is available now on Windows PC, Xbox Series S and Xbox Series X.
The Medium was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox Series X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.