Maid of Sker has been on my radar since it was announced. I’ve never played a game developed by Wales Interactive before but they’re here with their second attempt at a horror game, this time using inspiration from a novel of the same name from the late 1800s and from British folklore. The game is a first-person survival horror game that borrows from other games in the genre, some of it good, some of it not so good, but with some differences to make it stand out from the pack.
It only takes around four hours total to get through it, depending on how many times you die (if you’re anything like me, then a lot), but it feels like the perfect length for this particular experience. So, did the game live up to the hype and first impressions the trailer left on me as a spooky horror game? Let’s find out…
The game opens up with you reading a letter from your wife Elisabeth Williams. She had been called home to become the new ‘Maid of Sker‘ at Sker Hotel, taking over from her mother. This means that she was supposed to be the new singer of the music halls, that is until a strange event happened that meant she was captured and restrained. You play as Thomas Evans, a composer who decided to go and try to save his partner from the hotel and the people that inhabit it.
Of course, things aren’t that simple and there are some twists and turns along the way, but we won’t get into those. It’s a really interesting premise and one that had me hooked from the beginning. Once you reach the end, there is a decision that can be made that alters the ending. It doesn’t seem like anything else alters the ending but that final decision. I like the story, it’s simple and engaging that is paced very well in its fairly short playtime. However, it’s the setting that really gripped me.
Victorian Wales looks really pretty and the opening feels like you’re walking straight into a classic horror novel setting, it’s really well done. It’s not the most fantastic looking game visually, but it has a very beautiful style and one that really hammers home the feeling of being trapped in some mad hotel. What really stands out, in terms of the visuals, is the lighting as it’s very well done throughout the entire experience. There’s always just a hint of light in all the right places, which definitely enforces the feeling of isolation.
Once you’re inside the hotel, the plot progresses through notes, phonographs and phone calls with Elisabeth, the latter being the most original and interesting. They all combine to drip-feed the events of the hotel since Elisabeth returned and it’s really easy to piece together and understand what’s been going on prior to your arrival. The notes, as usual, are optional, so you will probably miss some along the way, but they aren’t necessary to fully understand the plot, they just help at filling in some gaps. There is a lot of subtle environmental storytelling that really add to the experience. For example, in one room of the hotel, you can stumble into a bed that sends spikes straight up through the mattress! How f$%ked up is that? Screw staying there.
The phonographs in Maid of Sker are essentially your equivalent to the Resident Evil typewriters, acting as places to save the game. They also offer some more tidbits of information which is a nice touch, so every time you find a new save you solve a bit more of the mystery. It’s not the only thing this game has in common with Resident Evil though, as you’ll see later on…
As I said before though, the conversations with Elisabeth are the most interesting story beats, as she calls you from her hiding place, in the attic (just going to ignore the fact that she seemingly knows where you are at all times despite this being set in the 1800s, there’s no ‘find my iPhone’ here), and talks you through how she’s feeling and telling you what you need to do to get to her. In these conversations, there are dialogue choices, although you can usually hear all of them if you just ask them all in no particular order – so they’re not really ‘choices’. This highlights a major problem for me in the game though: Thomas Evans is the most lifeless protagonist of a game I’ve ever played…
Your character is almost entirely mute, which makes it incredibly hard to relate to him and emotionally link to how he’s feeling. He only seems to make a sound when he’s falling down or struggling when you’ve been grabbed. The fact he doesn’t talk at all is really off-putting. I want to feel his fear, I want to know how he feels, I want to become Thomas and be fully immersed within this dark world. I would love to know how he is so silent when he’s witnessing people being burnt, being smashed through windows, and observing menacing enemies with sewn up faces known as The Quiet Ones.
Ironically, they make more noise than Thomas and they’re called ‘THE QUIET ONES’, that doesn’t seem right!
So, how does the game actually play? Think of the first half of Resident Evil 7 mixed with Outlast or Remothered: Tormented Fathers and you’re pretty close. You will be slowly progressing through the floors of the Sker Hotel by dodging the blind enemies and solving puzzles, sometimes backtracking to open previously closed areas. It’s a complete mixed bag experience, with some great mechanics that are dragged down by sheer repetitiveness and some extreme AI inconsistencies. The developers have released a patch that targets some of these inconsistencies, along with some other bugs, but I was still having the same problems.
The AI is sometimes very dumb, to the point where you can walk past them within a few meters and they ignore you completely. Then, other times when you’re two rooms away and crouched, having not barged into any objects at all, the ‘Aha, found you!’ music plays and they’re suddenly running through doors and come straight up to you, even though you haven’t done anything. It’s very bizarre and, more than anything, very frustrating. The game is monotonous as it is without having to replay the same difficult sections over and over due to some strange super sensitive AI.
I played on normal difficulty and overall, it did feel fair. But, there were definitely times I was punished for doing nothing wrong, pulling me out of the experience and immersion.
The stand out mechanic of the game is the ability to hold your breath. As you’re sneaking past enemies you need to try to not make a sound and this mechanic allows you to do that. Of course, you can only hold it for a short period of time but it’s a really important and interesting feature that I’ve personally never used in a game before. It’s the only feature in the gameplay that actually adds to the tension in a positive way, as sometimes timing is absolutely everything. One second to early and you could run out just as you’re next to the enemy, where you then need to take a large loud gasp of air. One second too late and you may already be heard and hunted down. It’s a really interesting balance and is my favourite part of the gameplay for sure.
The other option you have is to defend yourself is a device that you find that can buy you a few seconds of respite. Saying what it is would be venturing slightly into spoiler territory, so I won’t, but you have to find ‘ammo’ for it and it’s in very limited supply, so should only be used when you’re really in a pinch. In most cases, you can take a bit of damage as you can find healing drinks scattered around, but with so many things out to get you, it’s best to try to avoid all damage if possible. I’m a little surprised that there’s no option to hide in cupboards or under beds as they even look like objects you can jump into and under. I’m not sure why that wasn’t included but I think it would remove a lot of frustration, as sometimes there’s just not enough space in a room to hold your breath and stay out of an enemy’s path.
As you progress through the hotel, you will also face a different type of enemy that changes the playstyle considerably. This enemy is a blatant ‘Mr. X’ rip off and despite it being an attempt at a different challenge for variety, it ruined my experience quite a bit. This enemy knows where you are at all times, it doesn’t matter how quiet you are. They will stalk you all around the floor, stopping you from being able to look around for both collectables and story progression items. It’s a very trial and error experience that will wear a few people down into not finishing the game. The endless sneaking is very repetitive, but I would take more of it over this absolute menace. The worst part? This enemy insta-kills you. The only way you can go round them is to use some vents to sneak through rooms but it’s not like it doesn’t know where you are, so it’s a very brief second you buy yourself, not really enough to look around.
This meant I wasn’t able to fully explore the floor as much as I would have liked, as I was forced into rushing to an objective just to get past this part, as it was annoying me so much.
Finally, your time in Sker Hotel will be spent occasionally solving puzzles, which I found really fun and I kind of wish there was more of them. There’s stuff such as pulling beer taps in a particular order, rushing around in an enclosing room to find an escape, and the absolute best being a puzzle that’s based purely on audio design. The solutions are always within sight, you just have to look around the environment for the clues and then use them to figure out how to solve them. It was a nice change of pace when the puzzles came and I’m glad they were included.
As I said, the best puzzle, in my opinion, was a part where you had to follow your ears. The room is completely pitch black and you had to manoeuvre through the darkness by listening to various sound cues to reach a source of light before moving on to the next one. It’s very creepy and disorienting and was one of the very few real ‘horror’ parts of the game in terms of creepy content.
This puzzle only works because of the excellent sound design. The audio in this game is quite something and it makes the game feel a lot scarier than it actually is. Strap on a decent pair of headphones when playing this game, trust me, it transforms the experience. The footsteps of The Quiet Ones haunt the hallways, the moans of creaking wood behind you as you stand and talk to Elisabeth are bone-chilling, heck, even the occasional jump-scares are only effective because of the sound that accompanies them – it’s all brilliantly done.
If wearing headphones you always get a strong sense of where the enemies are walking, giving you a much greater chance of surviving. The visual and audio design is definitely to be praised, it’s eerily pretty to look at and unnerving and claustrophobic in what envelopes your ears. They’re the two strongest aspects for me.
Speaking of jump-scares, despite giving me a little fright they, unfortunately, didn’t always quite hit the mark. There’s only a handful of them throughout and they’re good in the sense that they don’t feel forced, they feel completely natural and I commend Wales Interactive for not overdoing it. They’re far apart enough to let you relax into the stealth and feel shocked by them when they happen. That being said, an effective jump-scare usually has me pausing my game needing a rest, that only happened once for me in the game. One reason for this is that I only caught a couple of them at the edge of my screen, which completely removed the shock factor. I realise this is not likely to happen to everyone but their positioning means that sometimes they won’t have the desired effect for everyone on their first playthrough.
My biggest problem with the game, more than the repetitive sneaking and dying, is that it’s just not as scary as I was hoping. Sure, there’s some dark imagery and the hotel is an eery and brilliant setting, but once the sneaking starts the game just doesn’t feel scary. However, it did overall feel very tense but all stealth sections in games feel tense, that’s kind of the point of them. But the reason they felt tense in Maid of Sker is mainly because of the spaced-out and limited save locations, meaning if you mess up it’s usually a long way back to where you met your demise. I was expecting to feel terrified about what was around the corner but instead, it was more a case of “I wonder where the next blind enemy is”, which just isn’t the same.
Maid of Sker scratched my horror itch for the year so far for sure. Despite some of my criticisms, it’s not a bad game, far from it. It’s just let down by a very few glaring issues that stop it from being a truly great game. I still really enjoyed my time with it, mainly due to its incredible setting and references to folklore. The story progresses in a very natural way and feels just about the right length at around four hours. The Quiet Ones are an interesting enemy type and their presence in the game is explained brilliantly through the excellent world-building that’s throughout the floors of the hotel. The only problem is that the story of them limits the gameplay experience somewhat to a repetitive sneaking trial and error game and that can get very frustrating, especially when it’s let down by strange AI problems. The puzzles in the game are very fun to work out and feel just as fun to do as the puzzles in a Resident Evil or Silent Hill game. The visuals and sound design are really quite something and lift the experience somewhat, which tells me that there’s potential for a fantastic horror experience to come from Wales Interactive.
Maid of Sker is a showcase that tells me Wales Interactive is a studio to keep an eye on, providing a refreshing take on a focused horror game that does enough to stand out from the pack. The breath-holding mechanic is a foundation to build on in the future and I really can’t wait to see what they come up with next. For now, Maid of Sker just didn’t do enough for me to love it. I’m holding my breath for the next adventure though.
If you’re more into buying physical games, rather than digital ones, then Perp Games are publishing the physical editions on the PS4 and Xbox One HERE. As of right now, there is only the ‘Vinyl’ edition, which contains:
• The game (on either platform)
• A limited-edition Vinyl soundtrack
• Digital artbook
• Digital map
• A signed inlay from the team at Wales Interactive.
If you’ve not had a signed game from Perp Games before, the game is still sealed and new, but you also receive a signed inlay separately for you to showcase or swap once you’ve opened up the game.
**Only the first 115 orders will have the signed inlay though**