Thank you to Wales Interactive for providing an early review copy.
Maid of Sker is the next game from indie studio Wales Interactive, who have released previous titles such as Late Shift and Don’t Knock Twice. Delving into the horror genre, Maid of Sker aims to capture an audience with an unique premise, one that really hasn’t been attempted in the mainstream before (at least to my knowledge): Welsh Mythological Horror. At first, and to be fair by the end as well, they succeeded in this regard. The story had captured my full attention, littered with intriguing imagery, disturbing yet informative lore notes, compelling character dialogue, and eerie atmosphere. However, the impact of all of this is minimized, due unfortunately to some minor technical issues, abhorrently broken mechanics, and overly obtuse puzzle solving. Maid of Sker is a majorly mixed bag, with pros and cons engulfed in a never ending battle of tug of war; keeping the title from becoming either a flawless masterpiece or an abysmal failure.
Maid of Sker definitely has its faults, but what it does right is done extremely well. As I mentioned earlier, the Wales 1898 setting is immediately captivating. Upon exiting the train to Sker Hotel, I couldn’t help but constantly pan my camera around to soak in the aesthetic of the dreary Welsh countryside. I felt as if something heavy was in the air all around me, as if the land I’ve just entered was plagued by an evil spell. The ominous atmosphere was firmly established, which is impressive yet crucial to do this early into a title’s runtime. This is also aided by the graphics and in particular the lighting in certain places, although generally speaking I would say the visuals are adequate for the price. However, the main draw to Maid of Sker has to be the story. You play as Thomas, a composer and husband to Elizabeth Williams. Having received a letter from Elizabeth requesting your help with some family matters under dire circumstances, you head off to the Williams ancestral home: Sker Hotel. I won’t discuss much more about the story or heavily dissect the plot as I’m firmly against spoilers, but I will say I wanted to find out every little detail of the madness that was occurring. Luckily, the game expected this, as there are lore notes scattered throughout the property that will provide key insights to the strife the Williams family has caused and endured. Slowly but surely, you will put the pieces together yourself to discover the truth to the nightmare. Additionally, the mythological aspects that come into play are fascinating, since prior to playing this title I had no knowledge of Welsh folklore. However, I’m reluctant to elaborate any further; as the story and the horrid, hidden truths you will find are the main reason to play the game. Unfortunately, the true horrors of Sker Hotel are decidedly not the terrors the developers intended.
There is one issue that I have with Maid of Sker that takes precedent above all else and must be addressed first: the breathing mechanic. In the game, your main method of dispatching enemies is, well, to not dispose of them at all. Without giving too much away, the monstrosities that plague the hotel grounds are blind, so in order to find you they have to hear you. This can be done in a myriad of ways, from walking on a creaky floorboard to bumping into an inanimate object. However, the main avenue of detection will be your own breathing. Whether you’re too close to an enemy without holding your breath or accidentally inhale dust particles or smoke from a fire and cough, your need for oxygen will be your consistent downfall. Now, if executed properly this can be an incredible game mechanic that brings a tension like no other (for example, Death Stranding). However, this mechanic is plain broken and wildly inconsistent. The majority of times I was detected by an enemy were completely unfair. Sometimes they could hear me from multiple rooms away, other times they could detect me through walls. Occasionally, there would be instances where it would just not work at all. There wouldn’t even be the slightest noise, not even the sound of a mouse scurrying across the floor, with me holding my breath in tandem, and an enemy would bull-rush me as if decided to start screeching like a banshee. Additionally, the game is filled with puzzles, which at first is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the majority of puzzles are insanely obtuse, with no real indication as to what the solution you’re working for is even supposed to be, leading to moments of immense frustration. Some held clever solutions, but overall the puzzles were poorly designed. Now, and without delving into spoilers, there is a Mr. X inspired enemy that stalks you on a certain floor of the hotel. My criticism isn’t that this is a knockoff of RE2R’s beloved tyrant (although, he is), as imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. But if you are to pay homage to an iconic horror villain, you have to do it right. He has the trench coat, hat, and heavy footsteps of Mr. X, but he’s anything but. This enemy is flat out broken and insanely overpowered. For instance, he never stops chasing you for his segment of the game (you can never lose him, he has constant tracking unlike Mr. X), he can kill you he’s while STUNNED if you’re close enough, and even sometimes the stun just won’t register and he’ll kill you. This is all amplified by the boss fight with the creature, in which I had to abuse the game mechanics in order to emerge victorious. It’s a typical “trap an enemy in a room and hit a button three times” boss fight, except you can’t trap him in the room. He’ll just walk into your room while you’re trying to activate the trap, as once again the stuns did not work consistently. To bypass this, I would hit the button and run into the trap room MYSELF, spamming all my ammo to keep him trapped in there with me. I also had to spam healing items, as with this method I took a massive amount of damage from the trap itself and whenever he’d hit me when a stun didn’t register. Rinsed and repeated three times, I had finally defeated him. Was it worth it? Not really, no. Finally, my last criticism of Maid of Sker (aside from some minor technical issues, which will come next), is that it really isn’t all that scary. Sure it’s unsettling, ominous, dark, but is it horrifying? No, well, unless you’re terrified of jump-scares as that is the main delivery of “horror” in this title. In my opinion, it’s a lazy way to induce a quick flash of fear unto the player, and I wish more effort was put into making the player feel paranoid, off-balance, anxious, and overall just plain scared.
This is usually where I’d talk about bugs and glitches, but outside of the broken and poorly designed mechanics previously mentioned, there isn’t much to report. I encountered some minor stuttering during my four and a half hour playthrough, but nothing remotely game-breaking. Furthermore, there were some light sound glitches. These could range from hearing wood creaking beneath my feet while I’m walking on tile to hearing enemies from far away (which can lead to some slight confusion) but once again, nothing game-breaking. Overall, I’m happy to say there are no major technical issues in Maid of Sker.
Summary & Conclusion
If I had to associate one word with Maid of Sker, it would have to be potential. The story and hidden lore is captivating, keeping me intrigued for my entire stay at Sker Hotel. The dialogue between characters is well acted and written, and the atmosphere establishes a beautiful balance between quiet, Welsh countryside and scorching eternal damnation. Unfortunately in the end, this is all bogged down by blatantly broken mechanics and at times overly obtuse puzzle-solving. However, I eagerly anticipate what Wales Interactive will develop next. With more development experience and time, I truly believe they are capable of crafting a masterpiece within the horror genre.