The first spirit you see in The Medium is someone you know. It’s your foster father Jack, a man with a warm smile and a beleaguered cadence to his voice. As Marianne, a funeral home worker with the ability to enter the spirit world and communicate with the dead, you knew this moment was coming. That doesn’t make it any easier.
After Jack’s spirit manifests in the funeral home and breaks a vase, Marianne finds and deals with him the way she’s done with so many other spirits before him. Jack isn’t malevolent or somehow twisted into a monster by his vices and regrets; he’s confused and tired, not entirely sure of what’s going on. After one final conversation with her loved one — something Marianne admits few others get to have — she sees him off to face the next life in peace.
It’s a touching opening, and a hint at the kinds of ghost stories The Medium seems poised to tell: ones in which the dead must confront personal issues instead of curses or demons. And for a while, the game sticks to that tone, grounding Marianne’s eventual journey into the spirit world in a thick history, one filled with haunted people and places. But as its dual-world concept comes into focus and its ghost stories wade into muddier waters, The Medium doesn’t build on these intriguing threads, and instead begins to follow a more rote horror framework.
After Marianne sees her foster father off, she gets a call from a stranger named Thomas, urging her to come to the Niwa Worker’s Resort just outside Krakow, Poland, and dangling answers about a recurring dream Marianne has been trying to decipher for most of her life. When she arrives, the resort is abandoned and padlocked. Marianne has to find her way inside.
The Medium is a fairly straightforward adventure game; you explore environments as Marianne from set camera angles, and have to move objects to climb walls, use keys to open doors, and examine items to glean a little history from them using your medium powers. Throughout, The Medium makes sure you can’t forget the weight that history can have on a place. Before you ride into the resort, a TV-style opening credits sequence bombards you with dozens of black-and-white stock footage shots, setting the mood for when you find all the cheerful townsfolk suddenly gone. As you explore the resort, you see chalk drawings in the parking lot, then notes written in the lobby by the resort’s inhabitants and signage created by its owners on the walls.
It’s here that The Medium begins to flex its central hook: Marianne can manifest herself in both the physical and spiritual worlds, which are largely the same, but in key ways are asymmetrical. She can split herself up and examine specters of people’s pasts by channeling objects, too, which opens up the first few areas of the resort to some mildly interesting puzzles in which you need to move the spirit-world Marianne through an area impassable to her in the physical world, then flip a switch or use her spirit-world energy to turn on a fuse box to power an elevator. The puzzles make some interesting use of both worlds, but none of them stand out as particularly clever, making the whole concept feel underutilized.
Several cutscenes also play out in both worlds at once, a neat idea that also doesn’t end up being crucial. While I regularly saw Marianne talking with an otherworldly presence in the spirit world but acting by herself in the physical world on the same screen, I never caught a character speaking in one world and another character’s reaction to what they’re saying in the other, or anything else that rewarded me for darting my eyes between the two halves of the screen.
The two-world conceit instead works best as a way to take in the stories of the ghosts you encounter. You soon meet up with Sadness, the spirit of a young girl with a missing arm who helps you put together a few details about why Thomas brought you to the resort, and assists you with a few puzzles along the way. The rapport between Marianne and Sadness is, again, touching, a source of light and company in an otherwise dark and lonely silence.
The spirit world is a realm of metaphors, and The Medium doesn’t let you forget it. When Marianne finds a razor blade in the spirit world that she can use to cut through what appear to be walls of flesh, she immediately remarks, “This thing isn’t a razor. It’s … guilt. Shame. Regret.” That line is a particularly egregious example of the story interpreting itself for you, but it’s indicative of the game’s overall tone. The metaphors you encounter — abusers represented as literal monsters, or traumatic events made manifest in historical artifacts — lack the kind of ambiguity or occasional conflicting meanings that can make horror and mysticism so enticing. Instead, the meanings have been laid out for you, leaving you with few opportunities to interpret or dig deeper.
Over time, The Medium becomes far more concerned with the secrets behind Thomas’ call, but this plot line, for all its twists, is much less interesting than the early, more empathetic tales of the dearly departed. Rather than focusing on stories that capture the feeling of loss of both individual people and their communities, The Medium pivots to a story about personal trauma as a catalyst for cycles of violence, as one person’s traumatic childhood causes them to inflict that same pain on someone else. Here, again, The Medium is not subtle; it uses extreme backstories like child abuse as shortcuts to establish characters as victims or villains, making a strong connection between “terrible thing happens to person” and “person is overcome by terrible thing.” The trauma we face inarguably affects and changes us as people, but The Medium doesn’t deliver that message in a compelling way. Instead, it paints with too broad a brush, smothering strokes of black and white in a way that leaves little room for interpretation or nuance.
Interacting with both the physical and spiritual worlds also quickly loses its charm. Marianne eventually becomes the target of The Maw, a monster from the spirit world that can’t be killed, and which you must hide from in a few stealth sections in both worlds. I thankfully never had to fight the thing, but every time I’d have to hide or run from The Maw, it felt like something I’d already done or encountered somewhere else. These sequences feel out of place in a game that otherwise seems fairly comfortable moving outside the bounds of traditional horror games.
Eventually, The Medium abandons its surprisingly empathetic take on the afterlife altogether to become a thriller, which, while honing in on a single thread, ends up being shallow and disappointing. The twists aren’t predictable but aren’t shocking, either, and while the latter half of the game sets itself up as an intricate web of interconnected relationships and secrets, it teases out hidden identities and other twists for way longer than it took for me to figure them out, leaving me waiting for the story to catch up. By the time I’d rolled credits and began processing what had just happened, I realized I didn’t have many plot points or striking moments to chew on.
It’s in these shifts from the quiet history of its locales and characters to an uninteresting suspense story that The Medium turns from a game ready to tackle the heartbreak of losing a loved one — or how that loss can reverberate through others over time — to yet another familiar story about violence. It can’t help but turn the traumatic experiences it wrestles with into trivial plot points to move its story along. As much as its latter half is concerned with doling out big revelations, none of them will stick with me as much as being able to talk to Jack one last time.
The Medium will be released Jan. 28 on Windows PC and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Bloober Team. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.