Release Date: July 28, 2020
Rating: M (Mature)
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One (reviewed)
Made to Scare
When you think of modern horror in the medium of video games, the last thing your mind is likely to wander to is 19th century British literature. The talented folks at Wales Interactive found inspiration in the unlikeliest of places, however. They've crafted a modern tale of terror inspired not only by a stuffy old book (a novel written by Lorna Doone author R. D. Blackmore in 1872), but also by Welsh folklore and Greek mythology.
The resulting product, Maid of Sker, has a lot of ambition behind its premise. But can it stand out in the current sea of Amnesia and Outlast wannabes?
Maid of Sker has an ostensibly simple premise. The game puts you in the role of a man named Thomas Evans, who journeys to the Sker Hotel in Wales to find his fiancée, Elizabeth. Elizabeth hasn't been heard from since traveling to the hotel to meet her estranged father. After a short introductory sequence on a train, Thomas arrives at the hotel and begins his search, uncovering clues that slowly reveal both the hotel’s and Elizabeth’s family’s sinister pasts.
The game’s graphics get the job done, and there are some really nice lighting effects. There isn’t a ton of variety in environments, but they’re all appropriately dark and dilapidated. Sound design is the real technical draw here, with a lot of unnerving creaks. The heavy thud of your character’s footsteps threaten to give away your location unless you slowly crawl from room to room. The soundtrack is great as well, with haunting Welsh vocals giving Thomas’s horrific journey a strangely-contrasting air of serenity.
Thomas’s utter lack of a voice will immediately set horror game veterans’ minds in motion, trying to guess the twist early on. But hear me out here – let the game take you along its own pace. Enjoy the relatively slow-paced ride. This spooky story is refreshingly straightforward for the most part, and while it has some intense moments (mostly reserved for the final act) it’s generally far less intense than many of its contemporaries.
It doesn’t take long before Thomas becomes acquainted with the deranged “Quiet Ones,” who blindly patrol the halls of the hotel. The Quiet Ones’ burned visages impair their vision, but you’ll often have an easy enough time sneaking by them while crouching. That is, until they begin to blindly throw bottles of chemicals that create clouds of toxic smoke in an attempt to make Thomas cough and reveal his location.
And here we come to my first complaint: Thomas’s coughing. The game doesn’t explain exactly what his condition is, but our poor protagonist is extremely sensitive to smells such as smoke, and will break into coughing fits unless you hold a button to make him cover his mouth. It’s an interesting idea, in theory, but the contrived placement of enemies in proximity to “hazards” such as bonfires and clouds of dust often create more frustration than tension. You eventually find a tool that will help you more easily avoid your pursuers, but you only have access to it for around a third of the game.
Phonograms and Phantasms
And what exactly are the Quiet Ones attempting to prevent Thomas from finding? Why, McGuffins, of course, and not just one, but four of ‘em! Thomas is able to communicate with Elizabeth throughout his journey via telephone, and she slowly reveals the background of the hotel.
To avoid spoilers, all I’ll say is that music is more than a little integral to the plot, as it is being used by Elizabeth’s father and uncle to hypnotize the Quiet Men. The brainwashing tune is played throughout the grounds using four wax phonograph cylinders, which Thomas hopes to retrieve with Elizabeth’s guidance.
Besides the Quiet Men and a single terrifying nemesis (wink, wink) who you encounter midway through the game, Thomas’s biggest hurdles in obtaining the cylinders are the hotel’s puzzles and traps. And here is Big Complaint #2, which is that most of the puzzles and environmental obstacles are lacking in creativity, to say the least. By the third time I encountered a door that is unlocked by pulling multiple levers, I was ready to pull my hair out. Every one of these lock mechanisms requires you to pull a lever and return to the door before seeking out the remaining levels. It’s tedious and clearly designed this way simply to pad out the game’s length.
A Haunted Weekend in Wales
The game spreads out its tense moments well enough, but between Thomas’ painfully slow speed while crouched and the tedious “puzzle” design, it can feel arduous at times. Walking at a normal pace or running are rarely an option, as Quiet Men have a tendency to run to whichever room you’re in, pinpointing your precise location even if you immediately hide and stop moving after making a loud noise. The lack of an autosave feature can make progression grind to a literal crawl, but patience will allow you to persevere.
Maid of Sker is a short-but-sweet (my initial play through took around six hours) trek through a unique historical location that should please patient horror fans. It’s a relatively casual horror experience until the craziness ramps up significantly in its second half. If you want a little culture mixed with your horror, as well as a game you can get through within a weekend, Maid of Sker is a good option.