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The Medium review: Does the Xbox Series X have its first great exclusive?

By Cameron McAllister // BBC The Social contributor // 27 January 2021

Exclusive games are, for some, the deciding factor between getting one console over the other.

Sony have offered a star-studded line-up of exclusive AAA titles to get people virtually queuing up in the early hours of the morning to order a PS5. On the other hand, Microsoft have left us dismayed with their only launch exclusive, Halo Infinite, being delayed meaning that Xbox only had jazzed up versions of Xbox One exclusives to entice gamers to buy one of their next-gen consoles.

Now, three months from launch Xbox finally has its first notable exclusive; The Medium.

Set in Poland in the late 1990s you play as Marianne, a medium who receives a mysterious phone call from an intriguing man, called Thomas, who claims to know her and promises her answers if she meets him at the Niwa Hotel. When Marianne arrives she finds a dilapidated resort with no sign of the enigmatic Thomas, but undeterred she sets out to uncover the mysteries of the unsettling structure.

What makes The Medium stand out amongst the big open world blockbusters is its presentation and unusual gameplay. Marianne has the ability to split herself between the real-world and the spirit-world, shown by splitting the screen in two. The dual-reality visuals are fresh and innovative and offer a wealth of options for the game’s puzzle solving.

The real world makes use of classic horror tropes with its crumbling blood-stained walls, long empty hallways littered with flickering lights and flora and fauna reclaiming the land. Inspired by the art of surrealism painter Zdzisław Beksiński, the spirit world of The Medium is both mesmerising and horrifying. Unfortunately our view of the haunting worlds of The Medium is restricted by the fixed camera angles reminiscent of the original Resident Evil. While the restrictions do add an extra sense of dread, this comes at the price of a lack of maneuverability in some of the more active scenes.

The visuals of the environments and characters are stunning, partly thanks to the ray-tracing capabilities of the Xbox Series X/S. Bloober also cleverly compliment the two worlds of The Medium with their own separate soundtracks; the real-world music is composed by Arkadiusz Reikowski whilst the spirit world music is by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka.

The Medium’s gameplay mainly involves exploring the environments in both the real-world and spirit-world as well as solving puzzles. Marianne’s ability to leave her body in the real-world and fully immerse herself in the spirit-world is key to both traversing the worlds as well as solving puzzles. Her other abilities include; ‘insight’ which marks important points in the environment which is similar to ‘focus’ in The Last of Us or ‘detective mode’ in Batman: Arkham Asylum, ‘spirit shield’ which protects you from spirits and finally ‘Spirit Blast’ which can be used to charge electrical items or attack enemy spirits.

While gameplay is important, the key to a great mystery game is an engaging narrative. Thankfully The Medium had a great plot that twists and turns all the way through, although its ending left me with slightly more questions than answers.

The Medium is a thought-provoking and visually striking horror game that trades jump scares for a gnawing sense of dread.

The story is dark and disturbing at times, dealing with themes that may be too challenging for some (hinted at by a trigger warning at the start of the game). There were also several points where I felt like I was approaching the end of the game, only for it to continue.

The Medium’s dialogue is a strong point. The voice acting is superb all the way through from Marianne’s monologues to the short audio clips that give life to ghostly characters. One performance that clearly stands out is The Last of Us’ Troy Baker as the terrifying villain The Maw. .

Puzzles vary from piecing together clues so you can find out the circumstances of the death of a trapped soul, to environmental puzzles that require moving between the spirit-world and real-world to open doors to the next part of the resort.

What keeps the game from getting repetitive is the mix of supernatural problem-solving with more relatable tasks. One of my favourite moments in the game is when you have to carefully develop photos in a dark room. At first it may sound like quite a mundane task for a videogame but it is the lifelike details of the task that makes the game so immersive that I was counting out loud to make sure that I didn’t take the photo out of the chemicals too early or leave it in too long.

These tasks create a satisfying contrast with the more elaborate supernatural puzzles. Problem solving and exploration does get broken up with a few chase scenes and moments where you have to stealthily get from A to B undetected. At first these parts of the game are exciting and a fast paced reprieve from the slow build-up of psychological horror but after a while they become grating and get slightly in the way of great storytelling.

The Medium is a thought-provoking and visually striking horror game that trades jump scares for a gnawing sense of dread. Despite some pacing issues the story managed to keep me hooked until the end with an intriguing plot and well-rounded characters. Does it fill that Halo shaped hole? No I don’t think it does, which is certainly not a bad thing. The Medium is a completely different type of game, encouraging gamers to think about the world around them rather than solely being there for entertainment.