To this day, SOMA remains one of my favourite horror experiences, if not my most favourite. So when I discovered that SOMA’s writer was working on Wales Interactive’s Maid of Sker, it went from being on my periphery to firmly in my sights. It promised a creepy and tense experience inspired by R.D. Blackmore’s novel from 1872 of the same name, even if it looked like more of the same first-person horror we’ve seen endless times this generation. So does Wales Interactive’s foray into horror stand out from the crowd or does fall where others have fallen before?
Wales Interactive’s adaptation sees players assume the role of Thomas Evans, a lovestruck musician who arrives at the Sker Hotel in 1898 to save his lover Elizabeth Williams after she is imprisoned by her old man in the forsaken building. From this you’d think that maybe the game was taking inspiration from the Grimm’s Rapunzel and not Welsh folklore, but the reason for Elizabeth’s imprisonment is that her father believes she has the pipes (vocal prowess) to bring tourists back to the town and the hotel.
Hotel from hell
One jarring element of the game’s narrative is that you play as a silent protagonist despite being a predefined character, and in contrast your paramour Elizabeth is fully voiced. You make dialogue choices for Thomas to which Elizabeth will respond, but his silence creates a lack of connection between the two as there’s no conveying of emotion; he’s come all this way to rescue her, but you never feel anything for either character.
To save Elizabeth, players will navigate the Sker hotel, slinking past burlap sack-wearing enemies known as Quiet Ones to find four cylinders that will be used to play a song that will lift the curse afflicting the hotel and its occupants. Players will learn a lot of the game’s story by listening to phonograph recordings (which also act as save points), as well as the various letters and documents strewn throughout the hotel.
Stealth-based first-person horror is generally all about having the right balance of gameplay, which is why SOMA is a great example; its moments of horror are perfectly spaced between the puzzle and narrative sequences. It means that players never really know when something could happen.
Where Maid of Sker comes unstuck is the sheer number of Quiet Ones that stalk the hallways and gardens of the Sker Hotel – seriously, they are everywhere. On paper you’d expect this to create an unnerving atmosphere, but given the amount of backtracking between areas it just ends up being a frustrating slog, which is amplified by the comical AI of the Quiet Ones. The catch with the Quiet Ones is that although they can’t see you, they can hear you. It means that players have to move swiftly and silently to avoid detection, which often results in death. Players have a couple of ways to protect themselves. Firstly whenever it is required, players can hold their breath (such as when moving through a dusty area that will force you to cough otherwise), and secondly Thomas can use the Phonic Modulator to stun enemies allowing him to escape.
Where it gets comical is when you’re standing still and the game makes a noise to tell you you’ve been spotted even though the enemy ‘can’t see you’, but when you cough after holding your breath with an enemy in your vicinity they carry on as if nothing happened. This is just one of many examples where the game can beyond frustrating.
Another one of the game’s tedious sequences involves squaring off with Elizabeth’s uncle – a Mr X wannabe who pursues you relentlessly until you defeat him. This whole ordeal highlights a key flaw that plagues Maid of Sker’s gameplay – a total lack of direction for what the player is required to do.
Finding the four cylinders isn’t as simple as waltzing around the hotel and locating them, players will have to solve puzzles to open doors and pathways to find them. When it comes to puzzles, Maid of Sker has two types. There are those of the same ilk as Resident Evil where you’re tasked with finding special keys for certain doors or other items to unlock areas (such as pieces of a family crest), and those that are more of an adventure game-style puzzle. A good puzzle game will give you the right clues or information to solve whatever challenges it throws your way, and while Maid of Sker does this some of the time (the key identifiers on doors), other times it throws you a puzzle almost without any context at all. Puzzles that seem rather rudimentary in concept become tiresome and a game of trial and error as you’re forced to try endless possibilities until you stumble on the solution. For example, there’s one puzzle involving beer taps, and it’s obvious that once you find the missing tap you need to pull them in a certain order. But the game gives you no clue as to what that order could be, so you’re left to try a myriad of combinations until you solve it. As a huge fan of puzzle games (especially adventure game style puzzles), Maid of Sker butchers this element completely.
For all of Maid of Sker’s faults, it does manage to create a pretty chilling atmosphere. Sker Hotel is a fairly unsettling place, one that is home to some truly terrifying rituals and events. This coupled with the game’s soundtrack which features haunting renditions of Welsh ballads makes it even more of a disappointment that the full experience doesn’t hit the mark.
Keep your phonic distance
It’s not the first time I’ve been burnt by a horror game that has failed to live up to expectations, and it probably won’t be the last. The biggest disappointment is that with a few tweaks, Maid of Sker could have been a good game. Instead it’s just another first-person stealth horror game that passes the atmosphere test but miserably fails the gameplay component.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher