Maid of Sker might just be Wales Interactive's output in its most concentrated form. This Welsh indie studio cannot be faulted for creative ideas, and drawing from its own local folklore is not a bad place to start. But the execution is everything, and sometimes it can lead to inventive but interactively stagnant experiences like Master Reboot or embarrassing pretentious twaddle like The Complex. In this game's case, there is a lot to admire: a novel horror premise with a well-done central idea. While the plot is charitably derivative and the gameplay doesn't push any envelopes, it adds up to a solid gothic horror experience
The Siren's Song
Heavily inspired by the British novel series of the same name, the plot follows Thomas who is answering a letter from his love, Elizabeth. She begs him to travel to the recently re-opened Sker Hotel to help her get away from the overbearing pressures of her father. It isn't long until Thomas is attacked by the hotel's patrons who have gone completely berserk. Elizabeth is trapped in the hotel's attic, and Thomas has to figure out the source of this behavior, get to Elizabeth and escape.
Overall, the central narrative is ho-hum at best. Plenty of horror experiences start with this kind of set-up and Maid of Sker doesn't exactly surprise in this department. However, there is some pretty strong atmosphere and themes regarding music and the performing arts that give the whole experience its own unique voice. When you consider how too many horror games lean heavily on tropes like body horror, abandoned hospitals, and the “horrors” of degenerative mental health, it makes this particular game a case of hitting the same notes but with different instruments.
In fact, one of Maid of Sker's greatest strengths is the sound design. The creaking of wooden floorboards, the sharp shock of hearing a window shatter, and the way everything grows and shrinks in volume based on distance are all impressive. If you can play this game with 3D headphones on, your ears are in for a ghoulish treat.
As damning a phrase it might be, once Maid of Sker stops leading the player by the nose, it becomes an enthralling nightmare.
Quiet as a Church Mouse
As a game, Maid of Sker didn't exactly make the best first impression. After a decent start with some slow-building tension, the game started introducing its core features, and they felt antiquated. You have to hunt down four key items that are scattered throughout the hotel, usually in locked-off areas that require certain keys. The enemies that patrol the halls cannot be fought directly, all you can do is run or hide. You'll need to solve various puzzles scattered throughout the hotel in order to get to these crucial items.
On paper, these design decisions are potent for survival horror. Multiple horror franchises like Resident Evil and Outlast have used them to great effect. Sadly, Maid of Sker's first half doesn't do itself any favors. For all of the scattered bits of exposition you find throughout the hotel of the dubious history of the hotel's owners and unsettling stories about ships crashed at sea, all of it is in service to some milquetoast material. Level design wise it is strictly linear, complete with scripted jump-scare sequences meant to usher you from one location to the next. The monsters coming after you are just generic humans with burlap sacks over their heads, not exactly the stuff of nightmares. The main gimmick is that they can't see but are drawn to sound, which the game does drum up as being important – giving you a dedicated “hold breath” button for when they get too close. But this mostly amounts to them being obstacles in boring puzzles that boil down to activating a device that causes a noise then sneaking past.
But eventually, Maid of Sker starts opening up in its second half. The pivotal moment for me was after escaping the gardens and figuring out the solution to a puzzle in the hotel's bar. There were clues scattered throughout the area such as portraits of items and people connected to the kinds of brews the bar served. After fiddling around with them for a while, a ladder revealed itself taking me to the first floor.
Making Its Own Music
From here, it felt like a switch got flipped. The map opened up. Multiple keys hunts happened, encouraging me to explore. The monsters, traps, and scenarios got far scarier. As damning a phrase it might be, once Maid of Sker stops leading the player by the nose, it becomes an enthralling nightmare. Even when the game borrows ideas from other horror titles – there's a boss sequence near the end that feels like an off-brand version of Resident Evil's Tyrant monster – it feels naturally suited to what the game has been conditioning you for.
My first time playing Maid of Sker was on the Nintendo Switch, and from what I can tell it is a great port. The framerate can stutter and there are some woeful textures in the outdoor sections. But the lighting and atmosphere is still solid. If you have no other way to experience this game than on Nintendo's handheld, you won't be sacrificing much.
The best example of this comes from an intense stealth sequence near the end. Not only were there multiple enemies after me, but it was in an area where I had no map. And the crucial ability to hold my breath to hide was working against me since the entire area was on fire, filling the air with smoke and ash. Either breathe, cough, and be spotted, or hold my breath and suffocate.
There are parts where the game annoys more than terrifies. There are a few puzzles that pad themselves out with artificial backtracking, which is made worse by hazards randomly being added like broken glass or toxic fumes. Wales Interactive's habit of letting the po-faced presentation of their narratives clash against video game artifice still crops up in spots; just don't think too hard about all the different mechanisms and keys and secret doors the Sker Hotel actually has. Finally, the game's finale (both the good and bad ending) feels abrupt, more akin to quickly wrapping things up than naturally building to a conclusion.
But despite these missteps, Maid of Sker packs some solid content into its modest production. My own playthrough clocked in at about five hours, and there is some replay value with things like collectibles and optional secret areas.
I Think They Want An Encore
Overall, Maid of Sker is a budget horror experience made with tangible passion. For all of its missteps and familiarity, there is enough creative spark to make this worth a try if you're a horror enthusiast.
TechRaptor reviewed Maid of Sker on Nintendo Switch with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
- Moody Gothic Atmosphere
- Creative Sound-Based Challenges
- Solid Puzzle and Stealth Gameplay
- Slow, Boring First Half
- Underwhelming Enemy Designs
- Predictable Central Plot