You might want to reconsider your trip to the Sker Hotel.
Not just because of the creepy, bag-headed men that stalk you through its dark, eerie corridors; but because Sker Hotel, which forms the backdrop of Wales Interactive’s horror game Maid of Sker, is just a chore to explore.
Set in 1898, Maid of Sker casts you as Thomas Evans, a young man who travels to the remote Sker Hotel, deep in the Welsh countryside. He’s received word from his love, Elisabeth, that something is amiss. The hotel is owned by her father – but something dark has overcome him, and very sinister happenings are afoot. But beholden to save Elisabeth, Thomas marches on, with little regard for his own wellbeing. A lady needs saving, after all, and what else is a gentleman to do?
“Maid of Sker is more or less a game of stealth. Except it doesn’t have any of the mechanics you’d associate with a typical stealth horror”
Interestingly, Maid of Sker is loosely based on real Welsh folklore. Sker House is a real building dating back over 900 years, and Elizabeth Williams is a real woman who lived there. The legend is that her father locked her in a room of the house to prevent her from running away with a lover. There’s also a 19th century novel of the same name, which the game has drawn inspiration from, and a ballad based on the legend: Y Ferch o’r Sger.
But Maid of Sker – the game – is very much its own tale, one that’s difficult to follow. Exactly what is occurring in the hotel is hard to grasp. Notes and phonograph recordings scattered throughout the hotel provide some context, but in the end all you really need to know is: dark shit is happening, and music seems to be the key.
You see, your main task is to search Sker Hotel for four sheets of music, and four brass music cylinders. These, or so Elisabeth tells you, as she occasionally speaks to you via a telephone, are the key to saving her and freeing the people of the hotel from the madness that ensues. The hotel’s hallways, as you’ll soon discover, are stalked by men with sacks covering over their faces. They’re blind, but they’ll walk up and down, ready to pursue you to your death should you make the slightest bit of noise.
“Whether or not you get spotted by Maid of Sker‘s creepy foes often feels down to luck”
As such then, Maid of Sker is more or less a game of stealth. Except it doesn’t have any of the mechanics you’d associate with a typical stealth horror. You can’t hide in cupboards or under beds. You can’t fight back. All you can do is stand still, cover your mouth to muzzle your breathing, and hope for the best.
Whether or not you get detected by Maid of Sker‘s creepy foes often feels down to luck. Sometimes you won’t have moved an inch, but one will rush up to you, attempting to kill you all the same. Or perhaps you’ll be correctly silent, holding your breath – but where you’re stood will just happen to clip the path of an oncoming sackface. Sorry; he’s now taking you down.
Should you get found, your only option – at least early on in the game – is to run away. But this is often futile. Running makes sound, you see, so you’re just as likely to attract more creepy stalkers as you attempt to flee. If you’re lucky, you may make it into a save room, where enemies cannot go. But with no ability to hide, and areas generally being confined, you’re often resigned to failure the second you’re spotted.
“The scariest part of Maid of Sker is the fear of losing progress”
Part way through your journey through Sker Hotel, you’ll find the Phonic Modulator – a contraption that disrupts these blind foes; it emits a sound that renders them paralysed for a few seconds, allowing you to escape should you find yourself in a tight spot. The problem is that for the device to work, it needs a charge. Charges are good for one use only, and they’re very scarce around the hotel. And before you’ve used it more than three or four times, the device will be taken away from you again. It’s a pointless mechanic that adds very little to the experience.
Later into the game, those sack-headed pests become the least of your worries. As you ascend to the second floor of Sker Hotel, you’ll meet an enemy best described as a low-budget Mr. X. He’s a huge figure, dressed all in black. He constantly pursues you, and should he catch you, it’s an instant kill. An entire section of the game plays out like a game of cat and mouse; you’re the mouse, and cheap Mr. X won’t stop until he gets you. Except he’s not actually that threatening. He’s immune to your Phonic Modulator, but it doesn’t matter so much; unlike smaller enemies, who will get a bit of a jog on if they know you’re nearby, not-Mr. X’s pace rarely changes. So, as long as you keep a big enough gap between you, he doesn’t really cause much of a problem.
Old folklore isn’t the only thing that Wales Interactive has drawn experience from with Maid of Sker; it also employs an old-fashioned save system, ripped straight from classic horror games of the 90s. There’s ne’er a checkpoint to be found; if you don’t want to find yourself losing the last 30-plus minutes of your progress, your number one priority is always to find a save room. When you’re inside the hotel, thankfully, it’s not too much of a problem. But you will frequently find yourself backtracking simply to save your game, rather than pushing on in the direction you should be going. Out in the garden, however, it’s a different matter. Save points are scarce and, particularly early on in the game, they’re easy to miss. It’s a problem when it’s so easy to get caught yet difficult to escape if you are seen.
“The environments are by far the highlight of the game”
As a result, the scariest part of Maid of Sker is the fear of losing progress and having to replay certain sections of the game. Finding a save point becomes much more rewarding than uncovering some new in-game lore or progressing the story – which really should not be the case.
That’s not to say that Maid of Sker‘s atmosphere isn’t the least bit scary. In fact, the environments are by far the highlight of the game. Sker Hotel is dark and foreboding, and poking around its dusty rooms, uncovering bedrooms fitted with deadly traps, would be a rewarding experience if it wasn’t for the constant need to sneak around everywhere. It’s a rather nice-looking game too. Some of the textures are a little sloppy up close, but it’s greater than the sum of its parts; the overall art style is effective, making for a promisingly haunting backdrop.
Sadly, it’s everything else that lets Maid of Sker down. It’s tedious to play; the density of enemies is far too high at times, transforming them from horrifying terrors to a groan-worthy annoyance. And the reliance on stealth without any real mechanics to back it up is tiresome. The few puzzles you come across in the game, too, are repetitive and laborious. No less than four times you’ll encounter the same puzzle: flip a series of switches to open a door. And of course, each time you’re doing it, you’ll have enemies to avoid, requiring you to sneak and hold your breath.
“Maid of Sker’s premise had potential, but sadly it’s mostly lost amongst less than stellar mechanics”
Compounding matters even more is the fact that the game’s controls are awful, at least in the Xbox One X version which we played for review. By default, panning the camera to look around is far too sensitive. You can adjust it in the options, but it never feels just right. There also seems to be a small amount of lag, making movement feel far too heavy and cumbersome.
All told, Maid of Sker isn’t a terrible game, but it is a disappointing one. It has the groundwork of something that could be wonderfully scary: a foreboding environment and a chilling soundtrack make for a formidable atmosphere. There are also some freaky setpieces that further set the tone of this horrifying world. But that’s where it ends; the rest of the horror comes from the poor game design. Hiding from a blind enemy for the 50th time is nothing but frustrating, and the decision to rely on an archaic manual save system is one which only damages the game further. Maid of Sker’s premise had potential, but sadly it’s mostly lost amongst less than stellar mechanics.