I live in Wales, so I reviewing a game about a house that is about a forty-minute drive from my town was an opportunity I couldn't miss. Set in the coastal region near Bridgend, The Maid of Sker is a haunting folkloric ghost tale taking a life of its own. Horror games don't have to be all about blood and guts exploding over our screens, as the Maid of Sker demonstrates, sometimes it's worth sitting back and enjoying the spooky story.
Bottom line: Even though "Sker" is a convenient hominem for a survival-horror game, it doesn't quite deliver the impact you're expecting at first. Once it does get going, it fails to keep its momentum at times, but the story drives the spooky suffering.
- Engaging narrative
- Awesomely atmospheric
- Short and sweet
- Rewarding for inquisitive players
- Inconsistent scare/explore balance
- Occasionally glaring graphic inequalities
The Maid of Sker: Atmospheric and tense
The Maid of Sker is set a little over a hundred years ago and is based on real folklore of South Wales. As the story goes, the real Elisabeth Williams fell in love with Thomas Evans, a poor musician. Her father locked her in her room to prevent them from running away together, and eventually, Elisabeth died of a broken heart after Thomas never came to rescue her. That sets the tone for this well-written survival horror title.
|Platforms||PC, Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch|
In this game, the player controls the musician, Thomas, who has received a letter from Elisabeth begging to be rescued. Her father has locked her in the attic, and she is being forced to sing a song that makes people go crazy. He must compose a kind of counter-curse by collecting four musical cylinders from around the grounds, rescue Elisabeth, and set things right.
There is a mashing of elements in The Maid of Sker, which make it superbly rewarding as the story goes, but also a tad boring in later stages. Once you've passed the intro and stumbled through woods to get to Sker hotel, entering into the halls is reminiscent of the early Resident Evil games. Players who enjoy the early survival horror genre will find much to appreciate in the Maid of Sker.
Old school horror with a new age twist
Some significant aspects, such as having infrequent saving opportunities and limited ammo and healing supplies, feel borrowed from this era, but rather than feeling ripped off, I appreciated it. For instance, phonographs are tucked away in safe-rooms to save the game, like typewriters in RE. People may criticize this and say it doesn't bring anything new to the table, but it felt like stepping back to a time bygone era with a new and unfamiliar environment to explore.
There's plenty here to keep things ominous. Some doors require players to find keys corresponding to a creepy emblem to open them; of course, that entails a cautious search around the hotel. You're suitably rewarded for poking your nose into every nook and cranny with secrets, puzzles, and collectibles. The atmospheric interior of the building breathes with its own life, creaking and settling loudly in ways which are jarring and hair-raising. Most of it comes from sneaking around, finding keys, and unlocking doors.
Periodic puzzles provide welcome pauses from stressful sneaking. They are not overly complicated; the answers are usually hidden in plain sight. It's a matter of really taking in your surroundings. There is a constant fear that something might pop out at you from the gloom and smack you in the face. The anxiety is justified early on, as you catch glimpses of sack-cloth hood wearing men who are blind and don't seem to like noise, and foot-steps echoing from above hint that you're certainly not alone.
Solving the mystery
Overall, The story is what keeps you going. There's a hotel being restored to its glory days, a shipwreck just off-shore harboring a mysterious entity that poisons the minds of those who are trying to keep it secret, and a simple song that caused all this trouble. It's an engaging story that you will want to conclude.
Atmosphere aside, The Maid of Sker isn't without its bursts of tension. As you start to bump into more sack-men, the very house itself seems to turn against you. Dust and pollen in the environment swirl about in thick patches, which can cause Thomas to cough or even choke. Coughing alerts them to your presence where they will find you.
To traverse these environmental hazards, you have to make him hold his breath, and there are certainly moment's where I was holding my breath in unison. There are also very few ways to defend yourself. The only real weapon you will wield is a steampunky doo-dad called a Phonic Modulator, which emits a supersonic pulse and momentarily stuns the nearby enemies. It's handy for buying you a couple of minutes, but with a limited cartridge supply, it is not something you'll be using haphazardly.
The Maid of Sker: Doom and gloom
Unfortunately, these tense moments are diluted when the hotel becomes inundated with sack-heads in the latter part of the game. An area that was vastly empty spaces eventually becomes teemed with a new bundle of friends to avoid. The "old school" feel has now worn off, and you're into territory that feels more like Outlast. I've criticized Outlast in the past for "make or break" moments where the player is corralled into feeling like they have to make these epic runs for cover, only to find that they weren't in any danger anyway. It wears down the scare factor after a while and makes it annoying. Maid of Sker suffers from the same issue.
The stealth element plays a big part in this game; players have to creep to make less noise and hold your breath to avoid breathing in irritating particles. But the sack-men may as well have cloth in their ears. I'm not sure if this is to do with the difficulty level, but for creatures who don't like sounds and are supposed to be very sensitive to anything that isn't the Silence, they don't respond to sound often.
I walked through areas other players might have crept through, and I coughed and choked on pollen only a few feet from a sack-man who couldn't have been less interested. Elisabeth tries to keep in contact with Thomas once he is inside, with phones which are dotted around the hotel. The shrill rings conveniently draw no attention at all from the sack-heads. Additionally, I often wished there was a more physical way to manipulate them out of the way. The main hall of the hotel has bells that draw them to another area, but it's not entirely clear how this mechanic works. Instead, I opted for just sneaking past.
Maybe not dark enough?
A lot of time and care went into making the Maid of Sker both visually and audibly atmospheric, and it works well to a certain extent providing your surroundings permit full immersion. The haunted creakings of the hotel give an anxious pause to take in your surroundings, and the use of gentle tinkling audio queues alert you to collectibles hidden nearby. But playing the game in the day makes for a harder experience.
The brightness and gamma options fail to meet a happy middle ground that doesn't result in washing the entire screen out, so playing in a darkened room is best for the most immersive experience. The graphics are also not especially sharp. I'd even go so far as to say the graphics are a bit dull. With some graphical interlacing issues on top, this doesn't play as cleanly as I feel it could. This game was reviewed on an Xbox One S, so players on other platforms may not experience this issue, but it certainly made a detrimental impact on my judgment.
Should you get Maid of Sker?
Overall, the Maid of Sker is a great survival horror game but suffers by trying to be too much like some games. There is a solid story behind it, almost Lovecraftian in nature, which is tantalizing, and it became the reason I wanted to keep playing more than any other appealing mechanics.
It may not "do it better" than the other games The Maid of Sker could be compared to, but for a step away from Wales Interactive's usual FMV titles, it is an honest and effective attempt at something a bit different. You can grab this title on Xbox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch, or play it on Steam right now.
A demented lullaby
The Maid of Sker is a tale of horror but winds up not quite being scary enough. Sker-y? Borrowing elements from other tried and true titles, there is nothing here we haven't seen before, but exploring Sker hotel and uncovering the mystery and being taken in by the story lore was enjoyable enough.
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