It is not difficult to see why the reaction from the audience towards The Medium is completely divided. On one hand it is an amazingly crafted narrative experience heightened by very strong presentation, on the other hand it fall so incredibly hard on its face in the ‘being an actual video game’ department.
The story revolves around protagonist Marianne who is unsurprisingly a medium that can traverse the worlds of both the living and the dead. It all begins on a somber tone as she is faced with the unenviable task of preparing her father’s body for burial in the physical realm while also venturing to the spirit realm to set his soul free to the afterlife. It is then that she is contacted by a man named Thomas who knows about her powers and seeks her help while also suggesting she can find answers about her past at the Niwa institute. I said begins on a somber tone but as Marianne sets off on the rest of her journey, it never actually lets up.
This is where you get to truly experience the gameplay for the first time and it is a confusing mess. It seems the developers wanted to make an experience that is akin to the horror based walking simulators that have been quite popular recently while incorporating the set camera angle, tank control game play of traditional survival horror games. The problem with that however is that there is no semblance of combat to compliment the style. This leaves the gamer with clunky controls that don’t always stay consistent when the perspective changes from one room to the next.
My primarily complaint would be the slow movement speed of the character. Even after completing the tutorial and unlocking the ability to run, it still feels like a slog through waist deep water. It was all too common for me to roll my eyes in frustration when entering what appeared to look like a long hallway as I knew it meant a needlessly extended period of time just running. In a normal survival horror game this would not be the case as I could always expect combat or puzzle interaction on the way but in this case there were far too many corridors that served no other purpose. Don’t let any mood setting music or moaning sound effects fool you into thinking that something will happen.
There are many objects in the world to interact with that will lead to lore, collectibles or items needed for puzzles. They will however often appear in areas of the environment that are clumped together leaving very little in between. When it comes to the puzzles specifically, you will never have more than a couple items in your inventory where you will need to figure out what the key to advancement is. What will usually happen is there will only be one key item needed for a puzzle which will be found within the same vicinity.
This is all very unfortunate to report as the concept of the dual realm existence holds so much potential for a game of this type. It is utilized greatly from a narrative standpoint as we see Marianne interacting with spirits in one realm and her physical persona mimicking the actions with no actual counter. You can even separate the two forms when there is some sort of blockade that needs to be cleared for the opposite form but again that is usually just one or two levers or switches and then it’s done.
It’s a shame really because the way that they present the two realms through split screen is done so well. Using selective angles on both sides in order to show what spirits are being interacted with but also the character facial reactions on the other half. It is really amplified by the fantastic imagery of the settings like the short lived cityscape, abandoned institution and the spirit realm.
There are very few instances where the game play loop is altered. You will come across a couple of stealth and chase sequences which are the only time you will likely see the game over screen and experience the sensation of dread this genre thrives on. Unfortunately, as much as I desired more action and the chases displayed an ability to provide a faster moving protagonist, I also disliked these the most due to all of them being rife with instant deaths. Get caught even slightly and you have to restart after what seems like the longest load times the PS5 and its SSD will potentially ever see.
Overall The Medium is a tale of two worlds both in regards to how it plays and how it will appeal to its audience. Those who are all in for story will probably love the complex and fairly unpredictable narrative while those who desire game play will have trouble staying with it until the end. I personally would have preferred a 6 hours experience rather than the current 8 hour run time if it just meant moving beyond a snail’s pace.