Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch,
July 28, 2020
I disembark the train. Now, I rest on a desolate island filled to the brim with overgrown forestry. Birds fly by. Trees whisper as the wind passes through. An old, 18th century hotel stands lays ahead of me. A siren song plays, beckoning me closer. I couldn’t be more eerily invited to Wales Interactive’s Maid of Sker. Rest assured, quite the venture awaits.
Maid of Sker follows quite a basic premise, ripe with chilling themes. You play as a silent protagonist named Thomas. Set in the late 1800’s somewhere in Britain, you’ve been summoned to the island of Sker, in order to visit the Sker Hotel. This very hotel is owned by your partner Elisabeth’s parents. There’s some desperation in the invitational letter your significant other has sent to you. Setting foot off the train that takes you to the island, nobody is in sight. This hotel is meant to be having its ‘grand re-opening today. Where is everyone? It’s when you finally enter the hotel that things take a turn and you learn something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
British folklore horror vibes at their absolute best
With your first taken step into the hotel, a old-timey telephone/speaker phone rings to the left. You answer it and its your dear Elisabeth in a panicked state. She’s hidden away in the attic, terrified by her father and uncle who have turned grim and violent. Hell, they’re not the only ones. The rest of Elisabeth’s family and even the esteemed guests have fallen to the same fate. Creeping around the halls, stairways and crevices of Sker Hotel is all of these people, covered in masks. These masks are so tight knit, close to sewn on alike Batman‘s Scarecrow or, the strangers in The Strangers, that this has now rendered the foes, known as The Quiet Men, blind, only able to “see” you through their hearing.
A lot more exposition is thrown here, but basically Elisabeth tells you your primary goal is to find and collect four hidden musical cylinders throughout the hotel grounds. These cylinders can be inserted and played into a grand instrument, creating a rumoured song that will immobilise these men, hopefully for good. So; get the cylinders, save the girl, get out.
Something wicked this way comes
Stealth is your absolute best friend in Maid of Sker. The grounds of the hotel are littered with the terrifying bunch. Thankfully (but also sometimes to a fault), they’re quite dumb. It’s a bit of a mixed bag here. Early on in the game, sneaking by these smaller foes was absolutely nerve-wracking. Later on, it became easy to cheese ways of sneaking around them. Bigger, challenging foes are eventually chucked at you sure, but I wish it found ways to keep me on my toes 100% of the time, compared to about 75%.
Maid of Sker offers no combat, but there’s also tools you can use at your disposal. Bells can be rung to attract your enemies to one room, then allowing for you to briskly sneak around them to another. Ducking into vents and passageways may also cause some benefit, especially when you’re trying to outrun the tougher, stockier foes. Later in the game, you even get a mechanical orb device that, with collected electrical charges, emit a small sonic sound and hint of a siren song, briefly stunning your foes.
All of these uses of stealth are quite video game-y but still welcome and performed quite well. There is one caveat to consider though when sneaking around the hotel: your hero Thomas is one hypoallergenic son of a gun. As an intended way to challenge players and also increase tension, often there’ll be particle filled areas that you must travel through. Do so recklessly and you’ll damn near cough your lungs out, notifying anyone nearby. These particles look could be a cloud of dust you’ll brush by in a basement, a suspiciously smoky fire or, cheaply, a purple gas that’s randomly thrown at you. Holding down left click on the mouse offers a ‘hold breath’ mechanic to challenge but also aid you through this. Though at times it’s still cheap. Also, Thomas won’t even flinch when he stumbles upon rotting corpses with flies buzzing around. Where’s the consistency?
Aesthetically is where Maid of Sker shines brightest. Stepping into the hotel reception, seeing old technology, blood, broken bottles and abandoned unpacked suitcases sure was a blast in the past. It reminded me greatly of the first time I set foot in Bioshock‘s Rapture. Something went wrong here, and it makes you eager to find it out.
There’s even a decent amount of puzzles and items you can interact with. You can fiddle with beer taps, and even a model of the hotel to unlock passageways. Those that are more music literate than I and can actually read music will no doubt find some fun in the music sheets you can find around the hotel as well. I don’t doubt there’s some fun to be had in playing songs on the pianos spread out around the place. Collectables in the form of musical dolls are found in rooms that emit a good ambiance when you near them. Still, even being not too knowledgeable I do know some good, haunting music when I hear it and Maid of Sker has plenty of it.
This carries on quite well to the rest of the game. In Maid of Sker you’ll visit locations such as a chapel, graveyard, eery attics, a basement and cave settings. These ventures will also see you travelling in between the gaps in walls and tight crawlspaces. You’ll stumble upon cultist rituals taking place under a bright red sky, even find a brief companion in the form of a dog. It’s quite a pretty little game for its scope, really. If all else fails, all of these environments are introduced (and sometimes reintroduced) at good rates, helping keep the mystery you’re so keen on solving going forward.
A lot of the game also feels like nod after nod after nod to horror games that came before it. You’ll drink tonics to heal up (there’s that Bioshock nod again), and explore the grounds of the hotel which seem almost impossible in the way they were built. Certain special keys shaped like a kraken unlock rarer doors. Safe rooms are a place to rest where you can save via listening to a phonograph, where more backstory is thrown. Hell, a gigantic, almost unavoidable broad shouldered man comes chasing you relentlessly in moments. And did I mention the impossible architecture?! How much of that just screams Resident Evil?
While these acknowledgements in the game aren’t subtle by any means, they don’t feel too hammered into your head. Fleeing from the big Mr X like figure for example, was quite a highlight. Without a gun in hand (like that of Resident Evil 2), you’re left feeling more powerless. Combine this with the dripping with style setting and engaging enough mystery and there’ll be plenty here for horror buffs.
With a quite frankly quiet year for horror games as well as an affordable price point, I can mostly recommend Maid of Sker. A few mechanic and A.I annoyances aside, the game offered quite a fun little mystery, even if it was predictable at times.
- Sweet and hauntingly beautiful British folklore setting that's dripping with style
- Fun puzzle solving and nods to horror greats
- Quite pretty and varying environments
- Those haunting siren songs!
- 'Hold Breath' mechanic could do with better implementation
- A.I. that can be dumb as bricks
All in all, I’m glad I got to spend time with Maid of Sker. Aesthetics, themes and those haunting siren songs that the game explores will no doubt stay with me for a long time to come. If you’re a horror fan, looking for a fun scare, would you kindly visit Sker Hotel?