“The Medium” follows Marianne, a young woman grappling with the loss of her recently deceased father. She receives a strange call, kick-starting a bizarre mystery connected to her past and her ghostly medium powers (these allow her to converse and interact with the dead, as well as traverse their hellish world).
The voice on the phone tells her to visit an abandoned resort, in which much of the game takes place, to unravel what’s going on. Though I felt invested by the sheer strangeness of the story at first, it later becomes disjointed and lacks direction, much like the gameplay itself.
This horror game comes with a unique gameplay mechanic: Occasionally you control two worlds at once, presented as a split-screen. Think of the worlds as two different lenses, or filters: You see the same area on both halves of the screen, but they’re different. One is the living world, and the other is an underworld filled with death, and Marianne walks through both simultaneously. You use both worlds to solve certain puzzles: For example, when searching for items, you’ll notice objects and areas will only appear in one world. Or, certain interactions in one world will make the other change (like unlocking a door), carving a new path forward. The concept has potential, but in execution, it’s under realized with uninspired puzzles. That’s a shame, because without clever use or much significance to the story, the split screen effect come across like a gimmick.
Not all the puzzles are boring; one of my favorites involved a dollhouse with small mirrors inside. Swapping mirrors to the different rooms of the dollhouse would open new portals in the real world. It’s too bad that few other puzzles were as interesting; usually they involved picking up items, placing them elsewhere and eventually finding a new way to progress into a previously locked room. Rinse and repeat.
Similar to some puzzle moments, several cutscenes split the screen in half to portray two worlds, with Marianne speaking to spirits who appear in one, and are invisible in the other. This makes the experience awkward, mostly — my eyes often darted up and down to both, never quite knowing where to look.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are mediocre at best, with only Sadness — a troubled spirit Marianne tries to help throughout her journey — inspiring a small measure of interest as the two gain one another’s trust. Lackluster voice acting in these instances is a major distraction, keeping these interactions from feeling poignant.
In terms of horror, “The Medium” has some good scares but they are sandwiched between boring stretches where I mostly just walked through long hallways, or climbed obstacles, feeling lost. It’s easy to get disoriented, especially when you are given little instruction as to where to go.
Much of the heavy lifting for frights is done by the environments, especially in the world of the dead that takes a Lovecraftian aesthetic, with slippery tentacles or long arms reaching down from above. One of my favorite levels involved a glowing red backdrop in a distorted world made of office supplies and imagery from a slaughter house. The sound design, like the disturbing sound of a blade cutting through flesh, is equally excellent. While “The Medium” is clearly spooky through its ambiance, it’s unfortunate that it never builds upon those environments with effective scares.
The few moments where I did feel terrified were during chase sequences. Occasionally you come across a terrifying, gargoyle-like beast who can turn invisible at a moment’s notice, and I gripped the controller tight when he was hot on my trail. In other occasions you use stealth to get past him safely: you can press a button so Marianne holds her breath, making her less detectable, as well as crouch or take cover as you move away. Although I’d initially feel terrified when the monster appeared for stealth sections, my fear would soon dissipate, as I’d always leave these encounters unharmed. They were too easy; the enemy A.I. called The Maw rarely found me — because he’s blind — but even when making a sound, I could easily recover. The lack of challenge lowered the intensity of these moments.
“The Medium” is uninspired, from puzzles to characters. If you’re looking for an interesting world to explore, it delivers with stunning art direction, but for those looking for a richer experience, “The Medium” feels skin deep.