Maid of Sker Review
If you’re looking to go on holiday, Maid of Sker is set at a charming 1800’s Welsh seaside hotel. The only catch: you’ll also have to deal with torture chambers, spooky ancient Welsh tunes, and a sordid tale of family greed. In Maid of Sker, which is a narrative-focused stealth and puzzle-oriented horror, you arrive at a seemingly abandoned hotel having received a letter from your loved one, Elisabeth, beckoning you to come and rescue her. She communicates with you via telephone from a hidden crawlspace somewhere in the hotel, and tells you there are strange men that she is afraid will catch her. Those are the beginnings of a memorable but fatally flawed gothic horror adventure, through which you’ll sneak around unlocking different portions of the hotel in order to rescue your dear Elisabeth.
The game is dripping with atmosphere, and starts off with an excellent sense of foreboding and doom, and the hotel does seem lived in. The story is told mostly through audio logs and letters that you find. It reveals the horrible things that have transpired in the hotel and in Elisabeth’s family, and also some truly surprising jump scares and grotesque images. The soundtrack is icily hypnotic too and seems lovingly curated, as the tale being told centres around music and performance. The actual narrative felt a little forced at points, as the twists are so heavily telegraphed that you spend the second half of the game just waiting to see them happen. Given the focus on Elisabeth luring you to the hotel, I needed more about what the player-character’s relationship with her was before the beginning of the game. We play as a silent protagonist, and are given nothing in terms of character development throughout the adventure. This is an odd choice, however, given that we play not as a random person, but as a central character in Elisabeth’s life. Elisabeth — who is the character you’ll be spending the most time listening to — was a rather generic pawn in a story rather than a fleshed out human being.
Visually, the game has some striking set pieces and moody lighting, but there is a haze that covers the screen. At first, I thought it was because of the boggy setting, but it’s there in the hotel, too. I tried messing with the options, but I couldn’t get it to go away. Otherwise, the textures in the game vary and some of the rooms in the hotel do repeat themselves. Conversely, many of the items in the game are filled with gears and detail, look tactile, and really help fill out the period setting. The animations and character models can feel distractingly last-gen, and do take away from the atmosphere. Pathways are also filled with artificial invisible walls, many of which aren’t even knee-high. It’s hard to feel justified being locked off from an area when it seems that I could just step over the obstacle. The game is at its best during its quietest parts, when unknown horrors lurk around the next corner. Unfortunately, most of the game is spent navigating and avoiding its irritating and goofy enemies.
Maid of Sker is heavily inspired by first-person stealth horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and as such you have very limited actions to defend yourself from the ghoulish men stalking you throughout the Hotel Sker. You wander around looking for maps and keys and other puzzle solutioney doodads amid a maze of wandering, faceless men whose only joy in life — or afterlife? — is to wallop you to death. I mean that literally. The only action the enemies in this game take upon finding you is punching at you like a worn out boxer. Frankly, the character models and punching animations are too clumsy to be frightening. You’re supposed to be deftly paying attention to the sounds of incoming enemies and also keeping track of the sound you’re making, as the enemies can only perceive you through sound. Unless you stand up and rummage around right next to an enemy, or literally touch them, it is impossible to be detected. As a final gambit, you can hold your breath to be completely silent, and to avoid coughing during dusty and magic-riddled areas denoted by a purple smoke. On my soundbar, however, I found that I couldn’t decipher the directional audio, and I could only determine an enemy was very close because they were klop-klopping very loudly or if they were very far away because they were klop-klopping very quietly. My tactical options were quite limited.
The ghouls pace laboriously around the hallways, and you can just walk behind them as long as you desire — like you’re dancing in a ghastly conga line — until you reach your destination. Their AI is quite simplistic too, and they often just walk in straight lines back and forth or until they reach a turn. The game gives you a sound weapon to stun enemies, but ammunition is extremely spare. The weapon is also useless during the most difficult chase sequence in the game, where it has almost no effect on the enemy. I kept hoarding my small bounty of ammo until the final third of the game, when it was literally taken away from me as part of the story. I would have loved some sort of mechanic to throw distractions and lure enemies to different spots. Instead, I was left figuring out lever puzzles and finding story clues until I found an enemy, then following them at a painfully slow pace or waiting for them to pass until I could get back to the puzzle. There are small vents you can use to expedite traversal between different areas, but these are few and far between. The pathways through the hotel are frustratingly linear, and I don’t imagine players having different playthroughs of this. I don’t expect Metal Gear Solid, but some more player choice in how to approach encounters would have been well appreciated. To add insult to injury, you’re punished for taking any sort of damage, as you breathe louder and a red border is added to the screen that doesn’t go away. Healing potions are also in comically limited supply throughout the game. While I didn’t find that my louder, injured character actually changed the gameplay, the red border and audio were so annoying that I would quickly intentionally find a way to die so I could start anew.
When you die in Maid of Sker, you’re brought to your last manual save, which happens at phonographs in safe rooms that can’t be accessed by enemies, even if they’re already chasing you as you run inside. You lose every item and bit of progress made since the last save. I absolutely abhorred this system. I understand giving me some sort of punishment for being caught, but it’s 2020, and I don’t see why it’s necessary to complete the same puzzle again or backtrack to the same areas over and over when I’ve already solved an area’s challenges. It’s not like the stealth system evolves or offers increasingly difficult challenges — you often die because you’re surprised or you’re unfamiliar with a new area. This system turns exploration into a slog, and I would estimate about half of my playtime was spent backtracking through areas I had already discovered. Navigation can be tedious too, as you have to go to your menu map and memorize your immediate area to continue exploring, as there is no mini-map, compass, or directional hint system in your UI. This is all compounded by absolutely heinous load times, which occur when you die and also between floors of the hotel and different areas. I was more afraid of experiencing another severe loading time than I was of being punched to death, and that was my main motivation for survival.
Maid of Sker has a good and a bad ending, and it tells you in very clear terms how to achieve each of them. I first watched the “bad” ending, which I found a bit short, but with a nice dark finality to it. I then went to hunt down the required items for the “good” ending, only to discover that a puzzle sequence for the final item I needed required me to use the game’s directional audio to navigate my way through a pitch black maze. I tried various times, but I just couldn’t figure it out on the soundbar. I cannot say for sure whether this issue was unique to my sound set-up, but the game definitely seemed to be more punishing for players without access to directional audio. I would encourage players to play with headphones.
A seldom seen gothic setting and a strong premise buoyed in music and atmosphere are mired in a laborious stealth system and a thinly told, middling story. Wade into the seaside terror of Maid of Sker if you’re absolutely desperate for a fresh horror tale, but know that its limited gameplay and somewhat dated production values may leave your thirst for fear unsated.
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