I want to say it was around 24 hours after I’d bravely rolled the credits on Resident Evil Village when our editor Gerard passed me the review code for Maid of Sker, another survival horror that would continue my trajectory to passably capable, maybe even courageous, horror status. Did he do this on purpose?
Having just come off another horror jaunt, there was a lot of familiarity to be found in this Wales Interactive title. Lavish environments now dilapidated, notes littered about the place, a feeling of isolation. Oh, and you save your progress on a phonograph rather than a typewriter.(You just scream into the horn!)
I feel it only fair to point out before I continue that I did not finish Maid of Sker. Not because the game was unenjoyable, but because the first-person perspective gave me a case of motion sickness which, coupled with the tension of progressing around a spooky hotel, wasn’t the best combination. That said, from what I saw during my review in progress, I was impressed by the atmosphere, environments and all-around creepiness presented in Maid of Sker.(JESUS TAP-DANCING MONKEY-CHRIST!!)
You play as Thomas and begin your journey on a train to the eponymous Sker Hotel equipped with a locket and a letter from your lover Elisabeth, who has been confined to the hotel by her father and offers some vague details about the situation you’re about to enter. As you watch the countryside pass outside the carriage window, the colour palette and lighting are bright, cheerful almost; what could possibly go wrong?(Oh just SO much!)
The game sets the tone effectively with haunting choral music which would be at right home on an episode of American Horror Story, though, with its Welsh vocals and a story said to be inspired by Welsh folklore, this is very much a British gothic horror story. Music and sound are important as you’ll discover in the game’s opening moments, not least when I jumped out of my skin at the sudden, loud mash of noise that accompanied the opening titles. Thanks, guys.
When you arrive at the hotel, the brightness fades, much like the hotel’s former glory it seems, signalling to the player that things have gone awry. You hear a phone ringing, it’s Elisabeth. She’s hiding in the attic, away from the rest of the family and hotel staff who, overcome by a supernatural force, are “no longer themselves” and will go after anything that makes a sound. The only way to stop it is to collect a series of brass cylinders which contain recordings of a strange melody that affects the mind when they’re played together on the harmonium.
The hotel itself is incredibly spooky. Dark tones, dim lights, creaky floors and there’s almost a mist that falls over the place which creates a real murky feel, as though you can physically see the evil that possesses it. There’s also so much detail, some of which you can interact with to discover more about what happened at the hotel but others where I found myself clicking on presumably actionable items like notes only to discover they were purely there for decoration. I played on PlayStation 5 and the environment, however ghostly, is beautiful to look at, in particularly the hotel’s outside grounds where the lighting disperses beautifully through foliage.
Given that the game’s enemies are attracted to sound (which makes me wonder why Elisabeth keeps in contact with our protagonist via very loud old telephones), you’ll need to use stealth tactics to survive. I’m not good at stealth in horror situations. The option to hide and creep around stuff usually means I stay frozen in the same spot for too long but I’ll take that any day over a shoot-out. It’s a while before you come face to face with any enemies, which builds up the tension nicely, though when you do, you’ll notice their strange, featureless, almost melted, faces while they trudge around like zombies. You’ll need to sneak by without drawing attention to yourself and I liked the added mechanic of being able to hold your breath and cover your mouth when walking past anything that might cause Thomas to cough.(“They don’t see you, they don’t see you!”)
I must give credit to the developers for the various difficulty settings offered, including a new ‘Safe Mode’ which features neither enemies nor damage and has been specifically designed for players who want to focus on atmosphere and story. As someone who so often enjoys the stories, characters and environments within these types of games but doesn’t always have the nerve for combat, I cannot tell you how happy it made me to see this option. To allow me to give a fuller review, I opted for easy mode which, granted, was more forgiving than a standard playthrough but it is the setting the developers recommend for those new to the horror genre. Hi there, have we met?
It feels fairly slow so far but perhaps that’s because I haven’t gotten into the real meat of the game yet. However, from what I have seen, Maid of Sker offers players a compelling story within a great environment, with clever mechanics and plenty of chills.