Based on an old Welsh folk song, Maid of Sker sends you to a dilapidated hotel to rescue your betrothed from the horrors within.
Along with my penchant for XCOM style games, I seem to be getting a reputation for horror games around here. Recently, music-themed ones in particular, with Song of Horror not so long ago, and now Maid of Sker. The latter is supposedly based on an amalgamation of old Welsh tales. I wasn’t familiar with the source material prior to playing this, but having asked around and read online, it seems that the game and Y Ferch o’r Sger have only a little in common. However, I’m here to review a stealth horror game, rather than analyse 19th-century literature.
Maid of Sker is a horror game set in the Sker Hotel in Wales. You play as Thomas, a musician who has received a letter from his betrothed Elisabeth, who is trapped in the hotel thanks to the madness of her family and the staff who inhabit it. She asks that you come to her aid, and to bring a counter-song to the ballad she will be forced to sing. What the meaning of this is and how Elisabeth has become trapped will be revealed as you explore and survive the hotel and its denizens.
Upon arrival, you’ll receive a phone call from Elisabeth, who is hiding in the attic. She tells you to find four musical cylinders before coming to rescue her to prevent a forthcoming disaster. At first, things seem quiet but it doesn’t take long for you to overhear people being assaulted, murdered, and sacrificed by the family and staff. From this point, you’ll be finding keys and solving puzzles to unlock more of the hotel whilst evading the threat of death.
As you explore you’ll come across enemies who are blind and hunt entirely by sound and touch — although they seem to be able to navigate the environments flawlessly which seems odd. Your footsteps and breath will be enough to alert them if they get close enough and you have no way to defend yourself save for a very limited use item that can stun foes. Whilst you can flee and heal up, it can be tough to lose enemies once you’ve alerted them, so stealth is absolutely the order of the day.
The irritation with this is it often isn’t clear how close enemies can get before they hear you. Sometimes you can sneak right past them, whilst others they’ll hear you from several yards away. It’s annoying to die and lose progress when you were sure you’d be safe. You’re able to hold your breath to reduce sound — very useful when moving through dusty areas that cause you to cough — but when you release it you’ll make a noise loud enough to attract nearby foes. It’s a nice idea, but a bit more player feedback might have been helpful.
This being the main mechanic of Maid of Sker could lead to it becoming stale, but things are very well-paced here. Each area you reach is distinct and will take some time to explore before moving to the next. You’ll find notes and recordings that fill in the history of the Sker Hotel and the family who own it, as well as save locations. With themed keys for rooms and a manual save system tied to specific areas, there were more than a few hints of the classic Resident Evil games being an inspiration, but without the limited number of saves (unless you’re playing on hard mode). There’s even a quasi boss fight towards the end of the game and multiple endings depending on what items you find.
The visuals are nice enough, reminding me of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but nothing special, although the use of lighting is really quite good. You’ll often be unsure of where an enemy is until they step into a spot of moonlight and are immediately illuminated. There are some motion blur effects that I wasn’t a fan of, but you can switch those off, which is a nice option for an Xbox One game. Sound is also good, which is nice seeing as it’s a key feature of Maid of Sker. Voice work is solid, and effects work well, but you’ll really need a surround sound system or headphones. Directional sound is key to finding enemies and solving some puzzles — in fact there was one puzzle that was infuriating without being able to make out directions easily. The visuals and sound come together well to create a solid atmosphere that’s often oppressive and threatening. The few jump scares managed to catch me by surprise thanks to this.
I enjoyed Maid of Sker well enough thanks to the maps being just the right size and fun to navigate. The annoyance of the enemies being able to detect you at different ranges was irritating, but not game-breaking. What was much more annoying was the very occasional bugs that could mess up your game. These seem to revolve around loading screens. I would often appear after loading with damage that I didn’t have before — and this includes after loading a save game. Sometimes the number of consumable items would be reduced when loading, or worst of all, dying whilst loading. These won’t end your game as such, but it can make things harder for you, or cause you to lose significant progress if you haven’t found a save area in some time. There’s also an interesting effect of loading a save game means the enemies aren’t where they were when you initially made the save. Not a bug necessarily, but interesting nonetheless.
I enjoyed Maid of Sker, although the loading bugs were incredibly annoying. The atmosphere was creepy and unsettling, whilst the enemies kept things just challenging enough throughout. Once I got used to the slightly odd controls that felt as though there was some form of mouse acceleration on the controller I managed to have fun right up to the end — I got a bad ending initially if you’re wondering. There aren’t many first-person stealth horror games that are good, so this is certainly worth a look for fans of the genre.