Wales Interactive are back again, but it’s not an FMV game this time, nope. Now it’s a full on first person horror game – Maid of Sker – based on some good old-fashioned Welsh mythology, specifically the tale of Sker House which is said to be haunted by two ghosts. One of them is the captain of a ship that was wrecked at Sker Point, and the other the tortured soul of Elizabeth Williams who was imprisoned by her father to stop her running off with her lover, which eventually led to her dying of a broken heart.
You play the character of Thomas, our silent protagonist. You’ve come to the Sker Hotel to find out what has happened to the love of your life, Elizabeth. It swiftly becomes obvious that bad things are afoot at the hotel, strange masked figures roam the halls, attacking anything that makes a noise. You find references to strange songs, to creatures, to a strange religious sect or cult, and what began as a seemingly straightforward endeavour descends into a dark gothic nightmare of corruption and greed.
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Maid of Sker is primarily a stealth horror game à la Layers of Fear. As with most of these types of games, you have limited options when it comes to defending yourself and really your best defence is to not be seen at all, the game alerting you to danger by making your heartbeat sound louder when enemies are close. Maid of Sker does have an interesting sonic device that can be used to incapacitate nearby enemies, allowing you to either escape to try again or to push on to reach a troublesome objective. Ammunition for this is, as you might imagine, scarce, so this should be a weapon of last resort.
The other main mechanic at play here is the ability to hold your breath. It’s an interesting gimmick. A click of the mouse has the character clapping their hands over their mouth, holding their breath till the screen starts to turn grey and the world fades out. On release there’s a gasp and colour floods back in. It adds a nice bit of tension as you use it to navigate environmental hazards such as dust or smoke, as well as using it to sneak past enemies. There are also some puzzle elements, mostly of the kind of “find part X to fit in widget Y” to spice things up, along with the occasional death trap for you to interact with and wince about the poor sods who were forced into them.
Let’s talk about what this game does right – and sadly it’s a shorter list than I’d like as I’ve been a big fan of Wales Interactive’s other games, like The Bunker and The Complex. The voice acting is solid, though the choice to make your character a silent one is… odd? Ah well. There are also oodles of tension on offer, with the game messing with you by incorporating the sounds of creaks and footsteps into the musical soundtrack to ensure you’re constantly on edge. But here is where we run into the biggest complaint I have about the game, at least on my particular setup.
My PC has 5.1 surround sound, and plenty of other games make use of it, but Maid of Sker is stubbornly in stereo only. For a game that touts a “3D sound-based AI system as the core survival mechanic” and where so much of the gameplay is based on being able to know where an enemy is in relation to you, only using the front speakers is frustrating. When I’m crouching by a wall with an enemy on the other side, I need to know where he is. Is he behind me? Or is he standing right by the corner waiting to punch me in the face the second I peek round?
Their claim of “realistic visuals” is also…. uhm… hopeful? Slightly overstating things? It does look pretty decent, the graphics do the job, but if you’re going into this expecting the graphical fidelity of a Triple-A game then you’re going to be disappointed – this is an indie production, remember! Speaking of the graphics, or more precisely the environment, there are also a number of frustrating moments where I was sure I should be able to get around an obstacle or fit between two objects only to be denied, which, again, in a game about trying to hide from enemies is kind of a pain when you realise that you’re not going to fit and there’s an enemy bearing down on you.
Going back to the soundtrack, the music by Gareth Lumb is appropriately ominous for the most part, complemented in three places by the beautiful vocals of Tia Kalmaru. The soundtrack is also available as a free pre-order bonus for those who purchased the game before release and it’s not half bad, a good listen to in its own right if you enjoy those sorts of horror/thriller themes.
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Summing all this up, Maid of Sker is an ambitious project, steeped in atmosphere, the audio “logs” and journal entries the player finds weaving a tale of misdeeds and hubris while the hotel itself is a dark, dangerous place full of shadows and roaming enemies… but it’s let down by the technical side of things. The lack of surround sound in a game that’s all about sound and music and noise is a bizarre omission which puts the player at a disadvantage, and while it might make things more tense, it’s a cheap way of doing it.
Is Maid of Sker worth buying? Sadly, only if you’re seriously into the idea of a game based on Welsh folklore. It’s not a bad game, nor is it an outstanding one.
Maid of Sker is out now on various platforms from Wales Interactive.