From Layers of Fear’s hallucinations to Observer’s cyberpunk world and Blair Witch’s haunted forests, developer Bloober Team has explored a range of different settings and flavors in its horror games. This approach is set to continue in The Medium, the Polish studio’s upcoming title which plans to give us the first taste of next-gen horror, and have us stepping into the shoes of a protagonist that’s able to tap into both the real and spirit worlds. At a glance, this “flow between the worlds” is arguably the game’s standout feature, but as we saw in a hands-off preview from last month, there’s more to Marianne’s journey than just that.
Set in late 90s post-communist Poland, The Medium has its fair share of oppressive brutalist architecture and eastern European furniture typical for the time, which make for a good amount of dreariness. Whether interior or exterior, its rundown real-world locations weren’t ones we would like to call home, and Marianne – the game’s protagonist and, incidentally, a medium – seemed to think the same. The spirit world is no less unwelcoming, but its visual elements inspired by Zdzisław Beksiński’s dystopian surrealism do draw you towards exploring its halls and rooms, even as you’re hunted by the unsettling monstrosity that is The Maw.
The pre-recorded footage we saw during the preview session started in a decrepit hotel, inspired by a real building in Krakow, Poland. Now abandoned and in the property of the Krakow Museum, Bloober Team received permission to go inside and research the actual location, using what they found in constructing the version found in The Medium. In-game, however, Hotel Cracovia has had its location moved to a forest, likely for some added desolation which made itself felt immediately.
The first thing protagonist Marianne did was use her medium sense to hear echoes from objects in the environment. Picking up a shoe, she could examine and rotate it in order to find a sweet spot. This allowed her to focus on the energy surrounding it and hear horrifying screams. The minigame only occurred once during the preview session, but the developer says that it’s a way for Marianne to take extra steps towards piecing things together.
Shortly after, the reception bell started ringing on its own, prompting Marianne to answer it. A ball then rolled down a nearby set of stairs, triggering the dual worlds mechanic. A horizontal line split the screen in half, showing Marianne in both the real and spirit world simultaneously. Her state and movements are echoed across both but each reality can have its own differences and obstacles. In the spirit world, Marianne could interact with a one-armed child called Sadness, who was not present in the real world. Although the cutscene in which they talked didn’t use identical camera angles, players have the same third-person perspective of both realms during gameplay.
Tasked with moving on from that location, Marianne found the nearby set of stairs to be in a sorry state in the real world, acting as a first puzzle. The Medium’s fixed camera makes it easier to spot both the common elements and the differences between its two realities, like a nearby elevator that was intact in both of them. Shortly after using it, however, the elevator broke down, presenting another challenge for real-world Marianne, now trapped inside.
This is where her Out of Body Experience ability came into play, allowing her to seek a solution in the spirit world. Spending too much time in Out of Body Experience can lead to your soul disintegrating, so you have to make good use of it. In this case, Marianne had to find a nearby totem to empower her Spirit Blast ability which could then create electricity to bring power back to the elevator’s fuse box. An interesting touch is how Marianne’s Spirit Meter is displayed on her arm, revealing when she can use her powers while keeping the screen free of intrusive UI elements.
The footage then jumped to a section where the protagonist was trapped in the spirit world, which shifted the focus to this realm alone. She ended up here using a mirror in the hotel, but during the transition, her belongings – alongside a useful cat figurine that facilitates transport between worlds – ended up left behind. This portion was permeated by a sense of gloom, small details like debris and swarms of moths bringing additional complexity to the environments. The Medium’s tangibly desolate and trap-like levels succeed at maintaining a constant feeling of tension. Tapping into her supernatural powers, Marianne is also able to send spirits away from the spirit world, provided she knows their name and what anchors them to the real world.
Seeking to free a child she knew as Bernard led her to follow a trail of blood through dark corridors, the nearby walls decorated with shattered masks gazing at her as she moved. They all belonged to people who were killed and had their spirits “ripped apart”. Using the energy from a nearby Spirit Well, the protection offered by her Spirit Shield power allowed Marianne to walk through an area blocked by a swarm of insects, burning them in the process. Returning the mask to Bernard freed him, rewarding Marianne with a cat figurine similar to the one she left behind. This prompted an attack from The Maw, a monster whose disturbing voice already left an imprint on our minds and which will be a familiar antagonizing presence throughout The Medium. In the spirit world, Marianne can temporarily dispatch it using her abilities.
But just like she can jump between worlds, so can the creature. In our reality, The Maw appears invisible, so you have to rely on a subtle Predator-like blur of its silhouette to keep track of its location. The monster can, however, see Marianne while she cannot make use of her powers here. The flashlight also acts as a makeshift sonar of sorts but avoidance is ultimately the best approach in these situations, which enforce a different style of gameplay. Powers might act as mainly a means of self-defense against monsters, but being unable to use them outside of the spirit world makes Marianne considerably more vulnerable.
In one area located outside the hotel, The Maw was guarding the sole exit while actively looking for her. In order to reach a crack in the wall and move to the next part, she had to sneak around using cover, reach a rope and cut it. This dropped a nearby object, causing noise that distracted the monster, giving the protagonist a small window to escape. While you do end up learning powers as you progress through the game, most of them are available from the very start, the developer told us. Once you have them, they don’t change fundamentally. Instead, it’s the challenges you face that require you to use them in different ways and for various purposes.
The shifts between realms come at specific points in The Medium’s linear story, which the developers say should take around 8 to 10 hours to complete without finding all the secrets. The aim was to avoid overwhelming players by maintaining a split that sees them spending one third of the game in the real world, one third in the spirit world, and one third having to deal with both. Bloober Team also said that it doesn’t anticipate a long period of adjustment to the game’s dual worlds mechanic and won’t limit the situations in which you’re dealing with both to just specific scenarios like solving puzzles.
During development, getting the player’s attention proved tricky, as the game was initially using a free camera. This not only caused motion sickness but saw testers having to circle the same room twice to get a handle of things in both realities. This was part of the reason why The Medium now uses only fixed camera angles, outside of moments when you’re investigating objects up close in first person. The camera follows Marianne but cannot be controlled directly. There also won’t be a photo mode, which is a bit of a shame since the game does look outright gorgeous at times.
The way in which The Medium uses color also helps ease the player into its dual worlds mechanic. The real world’s blueish palette contrasts Marianne’s red sweater, which anchors her position on the screen. The Spirit World’s predominantly reddish hues contrast Marianne’s white hair for a similar effect. Difficulty-wise, The Medium isn’t designed to be super challenging, its only difficulty mode aiming for a balanced approach. The developer acknowledged that ”the monster is more scary before it grabs you” and that “dying to it kills the immersion and the fear inside you.” Even with this in mind, not playing carefully enough can still turn Marianne into food for The Maw. Similarly, only some puzzles will require “thinking and mathematics.”
The Medium mixes familiar gameplay tropes with an original story, eye-catching visuals, a thick atmosphere, and a dual worlds mechanic that aims to shake up how you approach different sections of its levels. There’s plenty that we didn’t see of the game’s linear story, but it does seem to employ a drip feed of narrative, visual, and mechanical elements to keep things fresh. We’ll get a taste of just how well it plays out and how terrifying The Maw is when The Medium launches later this month, on January 28.
About Bogdan Robert Mateș
When not brewing coffee or debating serious topics with my cat, you'll either find me playing video games or writing about them.