by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Ghosts of the Past
Thereís just something about the 19th-century horror that works for me in a way that contemporary-set horror doesnít. Why that is, I canít exactly say. Perhaps itís the simplicity of a time before modern electronics. Maybe itís their reliance on the unsettling instead of the overly-gory. Perchance it has something to do with the mťlange of the mild-mannered and the perturbed. Whatever it is, from classics like Poe to modern period-pieces like Crimson Peak, I find myself enjoying these types of games, books, and movies more often than not. Given that, Wales Interactiveís Welsh-folklore-inspired Maid of Sker seemed right up my alley, and Iím happy that it lived up to my expectations.
Maid of Sker, like most good tales of Gothic horror, is centered around a spooky building, a couple in love, and sins of the past coming back for retribution. In this particular case, the tale starts with a letter from Elisabeth to her lover Thomas. In this mysteriously vague written plea, Elisabeth begs Thomas to come to the titular Sker Hotel, which her father is reopening. She doesnít initially say what, but heís planning to use her for something bad, the same thing he used her mother for. Being the loving partner that he is, Thomas boards a train and arrives promptly at the Sker Hotel, only to find it has fallen to ramshackle in the middle of its apparent grand opening. What happened, how Elizabeth is involved, and how the horrid current events can be stopped are left to Thomas and Elisabeth to answer.
Beauty and Decay
After first setting foot in the Sker hotel, Iím reminded, for a few reasons, of Bioshockís Rapture. While itís not a whole city, and while itís certainly not underwater, the unsettling aura of a ďparadiseĒ turned to madness permeates every area of the Sker Hotel. Beautiful ballrooms, gardens, chapels, and other hotel amenities are nestled in intense dissonance, their beauty and detail overrun with blood, dirt, and decay. Itís this wonderfully-crafted setting that is the gameís strongest selling point. Single-setting games can be challenging. When done well, keeping the setting isolated to one area can create a sense of intimacy and familiarity for the player. Thatís the case here, with each area of the hotel packed with details that bring the building and grounds to life. The outdoor areas are impressive, too, with lush foliage made of three-dimensional plants that avoid the ďpainted onĒ look of less detail-oriented woodland environments. Iíve never been to the UK, but everything I saw is exactly what Iíd imagine a spooky supernatural hotel there to feel like.
Beyond object design, color and blur are also used to seal the period-piece feel. While the washed colors and hazy light worked for me, the lens distortion and motion blur didnít. These can be turned off in the settings menu, and, to me, the game looks better without them. Furthermore, with blur and distortion on, movement sometimes made me a bit nauseous. How these settings look and how they affect you may vary, but, if youíre feeling a bit uncomfortable, be sure to jump into those visual settings.
As you explore the hotel, Maid of Sker does a good job of dripping bits of story to keep the tension high. While more details come throughout the gameís playtime, the central conflict becomes clear rather quickly. Elisabeth, like her mother before her, has a beautiful siren singing voice capable of drawing people to it. Her father, a nasty man with a history of abusing this ability, has decided that heíll use his daughterís voice to lure people to the newly renovated Sker Hotel for less-than-pleasant reasons. In the midst of the hotelís grand reopening, a mysterious blight struck out, turning the family (save for Elisabeth) and hotel staff into monsters. Elisabeth says that her mother wrote a song that can revert the curse, and it becomes Thomasí mission to scour the hotel for the phonograph cylinders containing the music.
Moments of Reprieve
While Thomas is a silent protagonist (well, he has dialogue options, but they arenít voiced), much of the gameís tension and pathos are thanks to the lovely voice acting of Elisabeth. While the voice acting is a bit more uneven elsewhere, her delivery is believably shaken and emotive. Itís a good thing, too, given that we get to know her by her voice. Scattered around the hotel are phone booths that Elisabeth and Thomas use to keep in touch, and saving is only available at phonograph speakers, each of which has an audio clip that fills in a bit more backstory.
Speaking of saving, itís something thatís understandably challenging to implement well in horror. Make save points too frequent and it can take away tension. Make them too rare and it becomes frustrating. The balance is fairly good here, with phonographs spread out just far enough to make me nervous but not so far that I was regularly replaying long sections of the game. While there were a few times I was annoyingly far away from my last save, the save points are generally well placed around challenging sections. Even those wonít be a reprieve on the most challenging difficulty, which I wasnít brave enough to undertake. There, not only is saving limited to certain areas, but you can only do it 10 times during your playthrough.
Maid of Sker follows the modern trend of the completely helpless protagonist. Well, most of the time, anyway. As you navigate the hotel and itís surrounding grounds, things are largely a matter of cat-and-mouse. You wonít be blasting baddies with shotguns, youíll be hiding and running. While the baddies here are fairly run-of-the-mill humanoids, their unique shtick is an inversion of their name: The Quiet Ones. Much like the monsters in the 2018 horror flick A Quiet Place, these folks canít see, navigating entirely by sound. Given that, noise largely means death for Thomas, and the actual gameplay is centered around quiet navigation. Thomas must do his best to keep his distance while moving, and the gameís main ďactionĒ is a breath-hold, which lets him pass enemies more closely. Itís also used in smokey and dusty environments, meaning that the player needs to simultaneously be mindful of enemy positions and environmental elements. The only reprieve from helplessness comes in the form of a sonic orb, which can be used to temporarily stun all enemies in the area. Itís a strong ďget out of jail freeĒ card of sorts, balanced by the rarity of ďammunitionĒ available in the hotel. Overall, the system works well. The AIís ď3d-soundĒ system seems to accurately ping the player when any noise is made, and itís incredibly tense to be inches from a Quiet One, screen fading from a long-held breath, hoping you timed it well enough to stay conscious until the threat has left.
Maid of Sker doesnít have terribly complex gameplay, but itís a tightly-made game that succeeds in more than enough areas to make it worth checking out. The Sker hotel is haunting, filled with detail and character that makes it a joy to explore. The choral soundtrack is absolutely beautiful, befitting both the gameís plot and atmosphere. Horror fans have been absolutely spoiled with high quality games over the last few years, and genre fans would do well to add Maid of Sker to their list of must-plays.
The hotel is packed with detail and atmosphere, Elisabethís voice actress is very good, effective noise-based detection system.
Default visual setting gave me a bit of nausea, occasionally frustrating save-point placement.