I don’t know at what point I became the de facto first person horror go-to at Finger Guns, but apparently that’s my thing now. Which is ironic, as I hate first person perspective horror games.
Not the games themselves, they’re very good at what they set out to do. No, what I hate is the feeling of helplessness that comes with playing them. The exception to this is Alien: Isolation, as that at least gives you a fighting chance. Whereas Outlast, Moons of Madness, anything that puts you in a defenseless position always has me on edge. That’s the feeling I hate.
So when Maid of Sker, Wales Interactive’s newest horror offering, landed at FGHQ, muggins here was the first port of call. Yay…
As it turns out, Maid of Sker is based on a folk tale that I’ve never heard of. Being one of nature’s cynics, I don’t tend to go for ghost stories. However, when I have to play a ghost story, that’s a different kettle of spooky fish. So, without further delay, shall we find out if there’s any merit to this story, or if it’s an urban legend that needs putting to rest…?
One Way Ticket to Sker Island, Please
The premise of Maid of Sker isn’t necessarily original, as far as horror stories go. But then, it did originate in the late 19th century, so it gets a bit of a pass on that one.
The story goes that the titular maid, Elisabeth Williams, was locked in the attic by her controlling father and died of a broken heart at Sker House. Granted, that’s pretty mild by today’s standard of horror, both in video game and real life. So naturally, liberal use of “artistic license” has been brought in to spruce proceedings up.
For one, legal faff meant that Sker House couldn’t be used. Instead, the game is set around Sker Hotel, on Sker Island… I know, not incredibly imaginative names, but Wales Interactive didn’t want you to forget the fable’s national heritage.
Our adventure starts on a train to the island, as protagonist Thomas reads a letter from Elisabeth explaining her predicament, which has been somewhat built upon from its roots. She is being held captive by her father still, but he wants Elisabeth to sing the song contained in a locket that once belonged to her mother.
The letter to Thomas doesn’t so much ward him off, as he was scheduled to perform too, but asks him to write a different song as a counterpart to the one in the locket. Why? Well, that’s what Thomas (and us by extension) is going to jolly well find out. As we get off the train and make our way to the hotel, you immediately begin to see the state of disarray the grounds have fallen to over the years. Surely something bigger is at play here, to reduce the once-proud hotel and attraction to a mere derelict shell…
It’s All… So… Quiet
Gaining entry to the hotel isn’t as simple as walking right up to the front door, cap in hand. Instead, Maid of Sker has you familiarise yourself with the controls around the grounds. Admittedly, it’s a very beautiful little detour too, with a sort of autumnal brown hue to everything last seen in Resident Evil 7’s introductory scenes. It’s when you actually get to the hotel, however, that things begin to seem a little… off.
Not only does the building seem devoid of life, but there’s barely any background noise, no signs of anything to suggest there are people here. Considering the central theme is one based on music, it seems awfully suspicious that it’s absent. What will happen if Elisabeth is forced to sing? What will Thomas’ song counteract? Is there something more inherently evil and potentially Lovecraftian going on…?
As events transpire about midway through the game, you discover that the hotel’s legacy is founded on some dodgy goings on with Grandfather Williams. Turns out, the song in question is the Siren’s Song, of Greek legend, and the power that comes with it is one of cult-like worship and fervor. Whilst it’s not terribly original, what with the clichèd tale of power arisen from a Chthulu-esque level of cult, it does lend itself well to the proceedings.
The caveat is that whilst Elisabeth has discovered this shame upon her family, she doesn’t let on to Thomas about it. So for all he knows, he’s writing a hit to rival the family’s traditional jam, all before riding off into the sunset with his beloved. It’s only through progression and use of gramaphone-cum-save-point audio logs that we start to realise what may or not be going on.
I don’t tend to spoil games in my reviews because for one, this isn’t a walkthrough and two, why would you want to know what happens? Especially in a horror title, which thrives on its spooky story as a selling point. So, I’m not going to break tradition and tell you now, either.
But what that elaborate spiel does do, dear reader, is let me segue nicely into the core gameplay of Maid of Sker instead…
Don’t Speak, I Know Just Where You’re Sneaking
Remember at the start, where I said that I don’t like horror games that leave you defenseless and on the back foot? Yeah, that’s exactly what Maid of Sker does.
Much like SOMA or Alien: Isolation, there is a constant looming presence about the hotel that you need to be mindful of. These are the Quiet Men: former members of staff turned worshipers of the cult that Williams Senior has brought unto the place. Wearing bags and cloth over their heads, they instead rely on noise detection to catch our unwitting protagonist in his tracks.
Given the central theme is sound, or lack thereof, the main bulk of Maid of Sker has you avoiding these enemies and treading carefully as you go. As you can see from the picture above, they can’t. It makes for a tense dynamic, that even I as a stealth fan always feel uncomfortable with. At least with Alien, you had distraction items to throw the scent off.
To its credit, there’s a brilliant implementation of object detection in here. Not in the physics-based manipulation sense, but careening into your surroundings carries real weight and consequence. You have to be careful where you place yourself, as bumping into a shelf or desk will alert enemies to you… well, literally bumping into a shelf or desk.
Your initial defense is to hold your breath and pray. I mean the former literally, there’s a button that has you hold your breath at any time to stop the Quiet Men hearing you. However, much like in real life, there’s only so long you can hold it in before your body starts to panic.
Ergo, the longer you hold your breath, the louder the gasp will be when you release R2 (or respective button on other formats). Or, you hold it too long and you almost pass out. Oh yes, none of this “just hold it down and sneak past enemies indefinitely” here, m’laddo. You’ve got to time it right, sucking in breaths between encounters, lest you end up on the pummeling end of a few fists from your somewhat crazed attackers.
Fortunately, you come across a Phonic Modulator a bit later on, that gives you a slight advantage in the evasive department. This acts as a sort of audio EMP, if you will, that temporarily renders your attackers immobile, giving you ample time to cheese it and collect your thoughts. However, this relies on cartridges to work, so you have to pick your battles with it.
Naturally, the ideal course is to not get in to a battle, so consider it more of a last resort than an offensive measure. The other thing you should really be worried about is what the hell’s going on in the hotel.
Residence of Evil
It’s not just the Quiet Men lurking the corridors that you have to worry about in this adventure, but the hotel itself. I don’t mean in the Amityville Horror, this-house-is-alive kind of sense, though.
More that the architect has studied the blueprints of the Arklay Mansion from Resident Evil, if you catch my drift. Labyrinthine hallways, secret passageways, doors that require certain systems on keys to unlock them, it’s all there. Even murder rooms, for when the Williams’ wanted to torture and dispose of any that didn’t believe in their cause. Hell, there’s even a puzzle that requires certain beer taps pulled to open up a secret passage behind the fountain in the hallway. How did the designer in charge of that not know that those four drinks might just be poured sequentially on a busy night?
This, fundamentally, is what makes up the bulk of Maid of Sker’s exploration. Again, much like Resident Evil, you will find yourself backtracking through the main building, as well as some of the outlying ones, as you hunt for four cylindrical music devices. These desirable objects, once all are obtained, are necessary to activate the massive organ in the middle of the hall. Will the combined forces of notes on these musical cylinders break the curse of the Siren’s Song, or are you a patsy in a much, much bigger scheme…?
Or will you just get lost trying to figure out where which door needed what key? Thankfully, and again like Resident Evil (and the first Silent Hill), the map system is comprehensive, even going as far as to mark where you haven’t been and what you’ve missed of importance. Which is good, because you’ll be doing a lot of back and forth.
To its credit, the hotel interiors and grounds do look exquisite. There’s a musty feel to them that shows it was once a vibrant, lived in atmosphere. However, most of this will pass you by, as you’ll be duck-walking and studying the underside of many a counter as you make your way through the halls.
These Boots Are Made For Clompin’
The reason why you’ll be walking like you’ve messed yourself and got cramp at the same time is for two massively asinine reasons: Thomas’ walking pace is slower than crouch-walking, and he wears possibly the loudest footwear I’ve ever heard in a game.
If, and granted I’ve never been in this situation, I were being pursued by occult-ish forces that picked up on sound primarily, I would take off my former walking shoes with the solid heel. Considering most surfaces you walk on are hardwood floor or stone pathway, these would seem like a no-brainer.
Alas no,which means Thomas is reduced to walking like a mallard and holding his breath at the same time, like a man caught short with stomach cramps and trying not to sneeze.
It’s an annoying thing to pick up on in an otherwise competent horror game, but once you’re aware of it (and you are now, sorry), it will have internally screaming for him to take his shoes off, or put something over them.
I get that the central theme is audiological scares, as well as understanding that you can’t just leg it about the place like Quicksilver in the X-Men’s place of residence. But to make it so absurd that walking normally is akin to being a one-man band, it’s annoying to see the game through like a child trying to reach a shop counter.
Just Don’t Ask About Room Service
Yet considering how much I don’t like these kind of horror games, I actually kind of like this one.
That may seem like hypocrisy, but to be fair, I wouldn’t have picked this up by choice. But in the name of journalistic integrity, I have seen this through and of the myriad of FPP spooky games I’ve endured, this is up there with the good ones.
Or at least, the ones I will foist on to my friends but never play through again. Without spoiling, there are some non-linear outcomes that reward the repeat offenders, as well as a wealth of collectibles for the trophy/achievement hunters amongst you.
On the surface, it’s a beautiful looking game. It didn’t have any HDR options or anything too technical to offer in the upscaling department, so even those not running HDR/4K setups will benefit from this title. Audio, when it does happen, is tense and unnerving, as the old building creaks and bends to the nature of entropy (wear and tear, basically).
And considering I’d never heard of the original story it’s expanded on, I was curious to see how it’d play out. It won’t make me go and study up on Welsh folklore, but I can respect a game that’s taken something so established and built upon it without tarnishing the source material.
Fans of Outlast, Amnesia and SOMA are probably more used to the mechanics than I am, so there may be nothing inherently new here to experience. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, as Maid of Sker isn’t so much ripping off other titles as it is showing that it’s easy enough to emulate.
For fans of horror that have yet to try something like this or any of the above, then this wouldn’t be a terrible place to start. Just, y’know, don’t ask me to help you with it.
A beautiful looking experience, hampered only by some bizarre footwear volume issues, Maid of Sker is as every part a horror experience as its established contemporaries.
Maid of Sker is available now on PlayStation 4 (reviewed on PS4 Pro), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Wales Interactive
Publisher: Wales Interactive
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a review code of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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