Je ne sais quoi. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “something (such as an appealing quality) that cannot be adequately described or expressed”. Could be a good meal or an engaging movie, but sometimes even video games tend to have it. Whether it is in terms of storytelling or gameplay mechanics, when executed right it is a sure way to boost the appeal of the game and extend its longevity. So even more games wish to have it. The Medium is trying to present us something like that but does it succeed? Is it enough? Read on and find out.
Before we get to the point, it’s only fair to say a word or two about the story. And I do mean a word or two because honestly there’s isn’t much to work with here. It’s not that it is lacking, but it is pretty simple and straightforward. You play as Marianne, a medium (who could have guessed, right?) with an ability to communicate and see into the otherworld. But not just any otherworld. This one is a pretty unwelcoming place. According to the store page, the design was strongly influenced by the works of Zdzislaw Beksinski and even if you don’t know who he is, a short googling session will tell you that you’re in for quite a ride. During the opening tutorial section, we learn some stuff about Marianne. Besides the obvious of communicating the ghosts, she is also an orphan, and to make things somehow worse, the story kicks in right after the funeral to your adoptive father. Marianne receives an enigmatic phone call that directs her to an abandoned Niwa Resort. It is a scary playground full of fixed camera angles, puzzles, occasional monsters that chase you, ghosts, and performance issues (way scarier than ghosts). I have to give credit where credit is due cause the story, later on, touches upon some heavy topics. It serves as a great backdrop to the haunting visuals in the game. Granted, you’ll see those mostly in the “split world”, as I call it, so let’s talk more about it now.
Seeing how Marianne can tap into the otherworld instantly, the obvious question is how does the game present it? All of it at the same time, of course. As seen in the following screenshots, both worlds are rendered simultaneously. Most of the game feels like a homage to the fixed camera games from the golden era of PsOne. Some sections of the game were reminiscent of Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Parasite Eve. In the first hour of the game, pretty much all of the gameplay mechanics and gimmicks are introduced, and then it’s up to you to just follow the story. You examine objects, find items, combine them, solve puzzles and unravel the mystery of Niwa Resort. A good number of the puzzles don’t require much thinking and they usually boil down to thoroughly exploring the room until you find that one placed item (if not hidden) and move on deeper into the resort. One good thing is that the game doesn’t have any backtracking during the exploration, which is something that I usually expect from the games in this genre. However, there are quite a few moments where you can die if not careful. Grotesque monsters and deadly butterflies can be the end of you if you’re not fast enough. On such occasions, I noticed that the game’s autosave system isn’t evenly spread out, considering that in some scenarios, getting caught by a monster or dying could mean replaying a whole 10 minutes of the game. Which doesn’t seem like much but multiply that by dying 5 or 6 times consecutively and you see the problem (or maybe I’m just really bad at escaping). To be fair, you’re not completely defenseless in the game. Some of the powers you have as a medium include an energy shield and an energy blast. The first one is quite useful while trying to pass through the cloud of deadly butterflies while the latter can be used to charge power sources (in order to start up an elevator or open some doors).
The presentation of the “split world” would be a forgettable gimmick in other games, but over here it’s elevated to a whole new level. It’s not just the background and level design that’s inspired by the paintings of Zdzislaw Beksinski, the whole design of monsters is really something to look at. It’s fun to look at some environment during split gameplay and see how it is completely deformed on the screen next to it. One thing that I also noticed is that the model of Marianne could have used a bit more polish. The lack of “fine-tuning” on her is especially noticeable during cutscenes and when she acts as a contrast to a darker background. Other than that, everything is up to standards. I only wish that I could have the option to sometimes completely focus the camera on the otherworld background. Some locations there are seriously mesmerizing as they are horrific, therefore screenshot worthy.
Now let’s talk about the team behind the sounds of The Medium. Arkadiusz Reikowski is a familiar name or folks that have played another game from Bloober Team – Layers of Fear 2. He also did some exquisite work for the soundtracks of Kholat and Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York. Another name has a cult following when it comes to video game soundtracks, especially in Silent Hill games. Akira Yamaoka. A man whose work is so good that you end up listening to the soundtracks long after you have finished the game, years and years after. This team-up for the soundtrack of The Medium is something I never knew I needed and especially had no idea that I would enjoy it this much. It really says a lot when a game has a soundtrack so eerie that forces the horrifying visuals to take a backseat every now and then. In any case, while there is a lot to be said about the game, the soundtrack of The Medium is a no-brainer purchase.
Have you ever been in a situation where things are going so well that you just wait for something bad to happen? And then it happens. One thing. It doesn’t have to be big but it’s there just enough to ruin the whole experience for you. That’s what happened with The Medium. The soundtrack, the story, the gameplay. All of that combined makes for a decent game, it’s just a shame that some aspects were presented in a barely playable manner. Now, I have a fairly powerful rig I haven’t yet encountered a game until now that it struggle this much. During the “split world” moments, the framerate would often dip way below 30 and turn the game into a slideshow. Pretty to look at but horrible to play. So even that “je ne sais quoi” in terms of a unique gameplay feature seems like a waste of time if it can’t be presented correctly. I really hope the framerate issue is fixed in the next patch cause right now it is a deterrent from an otherwise great game.
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