This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews The Medium.
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You know what, Konami? I don't even care about Silent Hill anymore; you make all the pachinko machines and arcade shooters and Pyramid Head-shaped suppository kits you like. I loved Silent Hill once, but you know what? Getting us attached to name franchises is how they get you; that's why Disney can sell haunted Zyklon B canisters just by sticking C-3PO on the front. I don't want a new Silent Hill; I want interesting, new horror games that benefit from Silent Hill's influence. I like bands influenced by Nirvana, but I wouldn't like it if they nailed Kurt Cobain's body to the front of the drum kit.
"Well, you're in luck, Yahtzee, me driveling old game-reviewing giant sea turtle, 'cos here's The Medium, a new original survival horror game not only inspired by Silent Hill, but featuring music from Akira Yamaoka himself!" Yeah, all the shitty Silent Hills had music from Akira Yamaoka; so did the Dead by Daylight expansion, and Shadows of the Damned, and... World of Tanks?! Akira Yamaoka apparently has trouble saying no to people. And why are you trying to cover the developer logo? "Um, 'cos it's by Bloober Team." Ugh, fucking walking simulator merchants; wish they'd simulate walking over to a fucking whiteboard and coming up with some new ideas, for once. "Oh, but this isn't another first-person walking simulator; it uses a fixed third-person camera in direct reference to classic survival horrors." Hmm, consider me on board for now, Bloober Team, but the moment you make me backtrack through a door that inexplicably leads to somewhere different, I'm making you play my new "Get Kicked Up the Arse" simulator.
For you see, that camera thing tells me something significant: that someone gets it. Someone gets that the third-person fixed camera adds to the atmospheric sense of detachment that survival horror benefits from; feels more like you're being watched from the shadows by parties unknown, and less like you're nestled up against the protagonist's nice, warm buttocks the whole time. Some people might say The Medium hardly needs it, though, since the atmosphere of detachment is adequately created by the personalities of all the characters, but those would be some terribly cruel people. Anyway, The Medium is about a twenty-something girl who wears clothes of a size somewhere between small and large, and also has the ability to perceive the spirit world and talk to the recently-dead; she gets called out to an abandoned vacation facility and site of a famous massacre to uncover the sinister truth behind both it and her mysterious origins and get some material for her urban exploration YouTube channel.
This might sound weird, but it took me a while to figure out that this fixed-camera survival horror game with a gloomy atmosphere about exploring both a decrepit real world and an identically laid-out scary netherworld that looks like it's made primarily out of ham was supposed to be Silent Hill-inspired; talk about missing the otherworld for the crucified bodies on spikes. I guess I just wasn't picking up the same vibe; it reminded me more of Dark Seed, that old point-and-click adventure game about exploring an H. R. Giger-designed parallel dark world as the protagonist struggles to overcome the horror of their mustache. Silent Hill feels organic and visceral and wet; The Medium felt more dead and dusty and as dry as a newlywed Baptist who doesn't believe in foreplay.
Some kind of combat element might've helped. I don't say that because Silent Hill had combat; Silent Hill combat was like the stick in the ice lolly: serving a purpose, but not the part you want to chew on. It really seemed like The Medium was going to have a combat element, but then it didn't; all the pieces were in place. We establish that ghosts can hurt us, and that we're going to a place with more ghosts than the bargain bin at the Call of Duty shop, and that the main character can load up her arm with spirit juice to fuel a blast attack and a shield, so I was like, "Great! Ghost laser tag? Let's Luigi's Mansion this bitch!" But then, we don't get that.
Your blast attack is used mainly for clearing clutter out of the way like it's a fucking astral leaf blower, and the closest thing to combat is the odd forced stealth/evasion sequence against a recurring monster who kills you in one hit, which is about as engaging as such things ever are; that is, as much as holding in a fart at a distant cousin's wedding. And then at the end of each act, the main character - who I seem to remember having a name, but it’s one of many things about The Medium I struggle to hold in my memory - confronts a big, elaborate monster spirit form of whoever's been stirring up the trouble most recently, and it really seems like a setup for a boss fight, and then Whatshername just defeats them in the same cutscene with no bother.
Look, I'm not asking for an exchange of ectoplasm bullets as our flaky protagonist dodge-rolls about like Sonic the Hedgehog, but the artists seem to have put a lot of work into the monster designs, and I'm sure it'd feel a lot more worth it if we had a chance to explore all their jiggly flaps looking for the weak spots. (On the monsters, I mean, not the artists.) Combat isn't just a distraction to keep the twitchy kids occupied while Mum and Dad are stroking their chins at the random document pickups; to a horror game, it adds context and engagement. Having to use a machete to hack aside the undergrowth in your path is what separates jungle exploration from a nature hike.
The running theme of my time with The Medium is that I always felt like I was more skating along the top of it than getting immersed. The gameplay didn't grab me; it's the usual survival horror inventory puzzle stuff - explore environment, find door blocked by rabid polecat, explore a bit more, find can of rabid polecat repellant, etc. - but the level design constantly herds us towards progress, and I never felt like I was the one coming up with the solutions. Case in point: there's a bit where the recurring monster is stomping about and we have to evade it until we find a way to restart a generator, at which point, Main Character Lady says, "Aha! Now I can turn the tables on the monster!", and I was like, "You can? It's really not clear how. You going to plug in a karaoke machine and challenge it to a something stupid-off?"
I also wasn't grabbed by the story, although that might be retroactively because of the ending; if your plane ends up crashing in the mountains, it's hard to have fond memories of the airline's hot towel service. Token warning: just call me an auto shop for douchebags, 'cos there's a ton of spoilers coming in! Basically, the main character - Marianne? I think it was Marianne. - finds the person who caused everything, and said person asks her to shoot them to stop the monster, and Marianne decides she's gotten really attached to this person in the nine seconds they've had to talk and proposes instead to shoot herself, which would also stop the monster by some awkward logic I wasn't quite convinced by. The argument escalates for a bit, then cut to black, gunshot, roll credits. So, she either shot herself or she didn't; guess it'll depend on sequel viability.
The Medium has good visual design and atmosphere, but I wasn't thinking about those during my suddenly much freer afternoon; I was wondering why violent ballistic death leapt that quickly to the top of Marianne's proposed solutions list. Just felt really out of nowhere; failure of characterization, I suppose. The suicide ending made sense in Spec Ops: The Line, and Silent Hill 2, and my last school reunion.
- The extra large: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Personally I thought the best ending of Silent Hill 2 was the one where James is revealed to have been two raccoons in a coat the whole time
- Should've ended Game of Thrones with a cut to black and a gunshot