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“It always starts with a dead girl.”

Thus begins developer Bloober Team’s psychological horror game The Medium, which centers on a young Polish woman named Marianne who is home in Krakow to bury her father, Jack. Growing up, Jack ran a funeral home and helped Marianne understand and grow her powers as a medium. Devastated by her father’s passing, Marianne receives a mysterious call from someone named Thomas and embarks to the haunted, long-abandoned Niwa resort. With the help of a spirit named Sadness, Marianne must find Thomas, unraveling the dark history of Niwa and escaping the clutches of a nefarious figure called the Maw.

One of the most refreshing aspects of The Medium’s narrative is watching Marianne interact with the spirit world during cutscenes. She speaks to spirits with sympathy, as though they were living souls, listening to and even joking with them. It’s an anchor for Marianne’s character, a constant reminder to the player that she is a fully-realized medium, comfortable with who she is and her powers.

As a medium, Marianne has a unique set of skills, including existing in the spirit realm (more on that in a minute), using her spirit senses in reality to alter perception and reveal clues and using her spirit-self to harness light energy. She can also astral project into an out-of-body experience, leaving her physical form and putting her completely into the spirit world. Spirit Marianne can explore places the corporeal Marianne cannot — but be careful, the longer Marianne uses her out-of-body power, the more her spirit disintegrates. If she fades away completely, players will have to restart from their most recent save slot.

Spirit Marianne’s ability to collect energy in the spirit world manifests in two ways, the spirit shield and spirit blast, which protect and defend her from attackers in the spirit world. Spirit Marianne’s left arm will indicate how much spirit energy she has left, which is certainly something to keep an eye on, lest players be left with an empty charge and caught unawares, thus falling into a deathloop, getting devoured by monsters and respawning right back into the chase. Bad form.

The most interesting aspect of the gameplay is its dual-reality feature. As mentioned above, Marianne can use her power as a medium to exist in two worlds simultaneously. Bloober incorporates this aspect seamlessly. When Marianne enters a room with strong spirit energy, she will visibly and audibly react and the screen will split in two. Players then control Marianne in both realities, and if something happens to her in one, it will affect her in the other.

About one third of the game takes place in this dual-reality, so it’s important to adapt quickly to looking for clues or dangers on both halves of the screen simultaneously. Some clues will only exist in one world, while others are visible in both. Objects also have different properties depending on which reality a player examines them in. The two realities interact with one another in a give-and-take puzzle. For example, if Marianne finds a razor in physical reality, her spirit self can use it to open a skin door in the celestial world, thus opening a doorway in reality. Slicing skin doors, incidentally, is disturbingly and extremely satisfying.

This hints at one of the central themes in the game, that perspective changes perception. Re-exploring areas is crucial to progressing in the game, especially as Marianne interacts more with the spirit world. A room which previously appeared empty will often unveil new secrets later in the game after plot points have been triggered. Players should remember: if stuck for clues, use the spirit sense power. It never fails to illuminate the proper next step.

The unsettling atmosphere of The Medium is achieved not by relying on jump scares — though there are a few — but rather through disturbing and oppressive elements in the world (remember the skin doors?). The Medium also incorporates an eerie soundtrack to fully immerse players. Arkadiusz Reikowski composed the score for the real world, while Akira Yamaoka composed for the spirit world. The visual components of the spirit world, meanwhile, were inspired by dystopian surrealism paintings by Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski.

The Medium uses semi-fixed cameras, which gives the game a notedly cinematic look, with shots cutting wide in open spaces so players can appreciate the full scenery. The camera-switching does make movement more complicated than other games. As Marianne walks down a hallway, the camera position will shift to accommodate the new area she’s walking into. However, this can often confuse the controls. While Marianne was walking forward initially, the change in perspective will careen her off to the side or even backwards. After an hour or two of gameplay, players will be able to anticipate the camera changes and adjust their controls as it happens.

Despite creating a need for gameplay adjustment, the camera work was done intentionally, as testing revealed moving the camera freely in the reality section of the game caused nausea in many players. This segues into a subtle, not-as-discussed buff within the game: accessibility. The dialogue automatically pops up as closed captions at the bottom of the screen. Bloober also added a “read” option for every note, postcard, file and more that Marianne finds, allowing players to read in clear text what is written on the item. Whether the writing seems easy to discern or if it’s faded on a partially burned piece of paper, The Medium makes sure everyone can gather every piece of information it has to offer.

The Medium launches Thursday for PC and Xbox Series S|X for $44.99.

This review is based on PC gameplay via Parsec using Macbook Pro hardware.

Photos courtesy of Bloober Team