The Medium - not your average Xbox game.
For someone who doesn't like horror games, I seem to be leaning into 'em quite hard at the moment. The last two games I've finished - Until Dawn and The Medium - could both debatably sit under this genre's umbrella, although in the case of that latter one I'd argue it's more psychological thriller than outright horror. Putting aside a genre label for a moment though, if nothing else... it's an interesting game.
The Medium is a single player narrative game that plays out over the course of about 10 hours. It's a short and well contained experience. It tells the tale of a woman with the curious ability to simultaneously exist in two worlds or dimensions simultaneously, investigating the origins or her ability and a disaster at a communist holiday camp in Poland. Gameplay-wise, there's a little more to it than it simply being a walking sim - although you do spend a lot of time pushing that left stick up. Most of the puzzles involve looking for items to manipulate the environment in one world in order to open a path in the other. While none of them stood out as being especially challenging, they did require a bit of lateral thinking and helped to both manage the pace of the narrative and flesh out the world the story takes place in.
Visually, it's a very pretty game - especially when you consider that for a lot of the time, your Xbox is rendering two game worlds simultaneously. While the resolution in these sections apparently drops, I didn't particularly notice a drop in visual fidelity. It's a dark game though, definitely one to play in a darkened room and with a decent headset. It follows a similar style to that adapted by the Resident Evil games of old - the camera is usually in a fixed position and you navigate the camera around the scenery to investigate the various points of interest that will crop up. Every so often though, that camera will cause you problems. There are a couple of set pieces that crop up that become an exercise in trial and error due to the camera (presumably intentionally) disguising the path you need to take to survive. While these moments were irritating though, they were never insurmountable - and success could be reached after a couple of attempts.
Narratively, while it tells a story that's lingered in my mind long after the credits rolled, I couldn't help but feel that there were a couple of mis-steps. To be clear, the subject matter of this game is not light hearted - at various points, it touches on the horrors of the Holocaust and the social tensions it created. It touches on the effect of communism on people's lives. Child abuse is an undercurrent that runs through it, never specifically mentioned but ever present just beneath the surface. The fact that developer Bloober Team even consider attempting to touch upon some of the subjects it does is a sign, I think, of just how far our favourite medium is maturing. Some parts of this tale are well told, while others are poorly explained and not as fleshed out as they could be - the less good bits spotlighted by the parts the game handles well. Some of the narrative impacts on gameplay are a little strange as well - one character in particular seems to be equipped with some abilities that completely outstrip those of other characters, with little in the way of reasoning or explanation offered for it.
With a solid narrative then, and walking sim/light puzzle gameplay that helps propel that story along, it's worth talking about the thing that I probably found most interesting about The Medium - and that's that it finally gives Microsoft an exclusive game that hits most of the pillars that drove the Playstation's popularity last gen. A lot of the PS4 games that were so highly regarded were single player, narrative games. They featured an over-the-shoulder camera. They were gritty, and they were visually gorgeous. The Medium is the first Xbox exclusive in a long time that leans so hard into the values that Playstation games are known for - and in that regard it's hard not to think that it marks the first sign that, in this new generation, Microsoft are actually going to compete in this area. It's an Xbox game that feels like a Playstation game - and as someone who's been playing a lot of those Playstation games lately, it's an exciting prospect for some more games of that style to be coming to my main platform of choice.
If you're an Xbox player wondering whether or not The Medium is a game you should check out, I'm here to say: you totally should. Don't let the horror styled advertising put you off if you're not a fan of that genre - this is not a game that will scare you stupid. While it's not perfect, it's a game that sets out a statement for the future of both Xbox games and narrative games generally. It's definitely worth a play through.