Maid of Sker Review: Can't Hit All the Notes
As I approached the Sker Hotel, feelings of foreboding anxiety left me in wonder as to what laid beyond its gates.
Based on a local Welsh ghost story, the hotel's gothic stylings and the game's atmospheric music combined to present a final warning. Crossing the threshold would be like crossing the Rubicon, and neither the protagonist, Thomas Evans, nor I knew what horrors we'd find within those walls.
It's exactly how I want to feel when beginning a new horror game. It's just too bad the horrors I found went beyond some decent scares, extending to some frustrating mechanics.
Maid of Sker Review: Can't Hit All the Notes
Horror fans will be familiar with the setup of Maid of Sker, even if, like me, they aren't familiar with the folklore that acts as its foundation. As Thomas Evans, players arrive in Wales and set off to the Sker Hotel where Thomas' love, Elisabeth Williams, has been locked away in the attic by her tyrannical family. They demand she takes the mantle of the hotel's vocalist from her deceased mother.
If "woman doesn't want to sing" sounds like a strange premise for a horror story, I suppose it is, but Maid of Sker leans heavily on a tale much older than itself and does so admirably. The story is the game's greatest attribute, especially if you're unfamiliar with it.
What is familiar, though, is a lot else. The setting opens up quite a bit right away, but with plenty of locked doors, broken crests, and puzzles to solve, the first-person horror on display here can feel a bit like Resident Evil. Sadly, it lacks both the variety and polish of that game in its enemy encounters.
All enemies in Maid of Sker are blind, so the game focuses on sound to an exciting degree. The directional audio works wonders on a headset, and it's really the only way to play Maid of Sker. While some games strongly recommend playing with such a setup, it's never seemed more important than it does here, as several puzzles are built around players listening for answers and other cues.
Maid of Sker uses a great mechanic where players can hold their breath to remain quiet as enemies pass. This is smartly built upon with dusty areas that induce coughing fits and alert Quiet Ones, as they're called. Holding your breath for too long eventually makes you exhale loudly, giving your sneaking exploration a bit of a puzzle feel.
The downside to this is that it never becomes clear, when dealing with enemies patrolling the halls of the spooky hotel, just how far away you need to be to be safe. You'll be forced to crouch through most of the game or else tip off enemies, but the mechanic is hit or miss.
Sometimes I could get right up behind them, and other times it seemed like they'd hear me from far off. Sometimes I could even walk or sprint without them hearing, and once you know where to go, you can usually sprint through to the next loading screen, and no one will catch you beforehand.
The exception to this rule is one particular enemy who seems to know where you are as soon as you arrive on his floor of the hotel. Even though he's blind like the other enemies, his thunderous footsteps boom like Mr. X or Nemesis, instilling immediate anxiety that I loved to feel — at first.
Quickly, though, faulty AI made him the most annoying part of the game. The way he's ever-aware of your presence changes the game from a stealthy defenseless horror to a mad dash through narrow hallways. Often, this would break down as he gave chase only for me to get stuck moving through areas where other lower-tier enemies patrolled. There's just no space to move past them, and this alone caused several unfair restarts.
I beat the game never having figured out whether this particular enemy was just extremely aggressive, or if I'd broken the game somehow. Every time I entered his floor, I heard the "enemy alert" chime, even if he was rooms away. Whether by design or by bug, it always felt like the latter.
He's also a factor through the game's final act, leaving a sour taste after some of the game's earlier highlights, such as its moody set dressing and engrossing story.
Maid of Sker tends to be at its best when it tells players very little about where to go next. However, it's sometimes necessary to do so, and the game fumbles its setup with poor map implementation.
Without a legend and using very small icons, it's difficult to read the map screen and find pertinent information. This led to my first playthrough taking eight or so hours when I expect the game is designed to be beaten in half that.
The game boasts that its script comes in part from one of the writers of the all-time great horror, SOMA, so it's no wonder why the game shines in that department, but there were times where mechanical failures had me ready to Google how the folktale goes. Ultimately, I was happy to see it land well, no matter which ending you choose, of which there seems to be two, but perhaps more.
It's in the game's quiet where it shines brightest. Searching the halls silently as enemies breathe on the other side of the door is fun, even as it could've been better with stronger AI. Even better is when you're approaching a door, and it opens just before you get there as a Quiet One enters your room, forcing you to retreat in a desperate crouch for an untouched closet or corner.
I simply adore a classic haunted house story, and Maid of Sker scratches that itch, albeit unevenly, more than most games. It gets an A for effort, even as it hardly passes in terms of execution.
Maid of Sker Review — The Bottom Line
- An intriguing haunted house folktale
- Great sound design utilized both in scares and puzzles
- Faulty enemy AI leads to encounters being too easy, inconsistent, or, in one case, too aggressive
- Map is poorly implemented, causing common frustration
Even though I don't think Maid of Sker is fantastic, I'm glad to have played it. Ever since I first played Amnesia, I've been chasing that setting and mood, which so few horror games try to capture. Maid of Sker, despite nagging issues with enemy encounters and navigation, is still a decent horror game that captures the mood of its central folktale very well.
It's a story worth experiencing for sure, so if you think playing a flawed game is better than reading the story on Reddit, Maid of Sker will serve you well for a stormy evening.
[Note: A copy of Maid of Sker was provided by Wales Interactive for the purpose of this review.]