Horror games don’t have to be gory to be effective. Establishing an atmosphere of dread and discomfort through setting and sound design can go a long way towards creating a successfully frightening experience. There are moments of visceral violence here but these are infrequent and used for emphasis. Maid of Sker definitely aims for a horror approach that emphasises vulnerability and player fragility rather than confrontation and combat as you rely on your sense of hearing to avoid the sinister residents of the Sker Hotel.
As far as locations go, Victorian Wales is a refreshingly original one. Such a historical setting also emphasises the feeling of isolation and paranoia that the game creates – there is no technological assistance or escape to be found here. Cutting edge during this time meant phonographs and internal domestic communications rather than GPS and Wi-Fi. The sense of its place in time is excellently established though the game’s introductory sequence which sees you rushing to your beloved’s assistance on a Victorian train. Alighting from the train, the dilapidated rural location of Sker brings to mind classic horror stories such as The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. This is a horror on a local domestic level rather than the wide cosmic terrors of HP Lovecraft. The intimacy of this threat makes for an effective sense of dread.
Based on a relatively obscure Welsh folktale, the narrative of Maid of Sker unfolds masterfully. Playing as composer Thomas Evans as you tentatively explore the Sker Hotel, the true nature of the threat that faces you is revealed slowly and keeps you guessing right up to the obligatory choice at the game’s conclusion. Hints and information are gradually introduced through collectable notes, recordings on the phonographs that are the game’s equivalent of Resident Evil’s typewriters, and calls on the internal phone contraption from Elizabeth, your beloved. This steady drip of information leads the player through the events without excessive exposition or backstory needed.
Maid of Sker is moody and atmospheric throughout. Obviously the majority of the game is dark and encased in shadow, but there is some spectacular use of lighting and a real sense of authenticity in the Victorian décor. Enemies are a little lacking in variety, but given that they are Victorian men with sacks on their heads I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. The leading figures in their midsts are nicely distinguished through their costumes and all have a suitably menacing appearance as they stalk around corridors and environs of the hotel.
The real selling point of Maid of Sker is the way in which it handles sound. As you explore the hotel and try to avoid the threats, you’ll need to listen out for their footsteps and take cover when needed. Although blind, the enemies will react to the slightest sound (particularly at higher difficulty levels) so a careful approach is required. I did encounter a few inconsistencies in the early review build as enemies would sometimes walk straight past me inches away, but would other times run towards me from far away.
Once you reach the second floor of the hotel, you’ll constantly be chased down by Elizabeth’s uncle, a bowler hat wearing figure whose heavy tread and persistence recalls the Tyrant from Resident Evil 2 Remake. Whilst clearly amplifying the threat level, I actually felt this undermined the careful stealth system, as I’d often run straight into other enemies while trying to avoid him.
Speaking of evil residences, Maid of Sker follows a traditional survival horror path as you explore the hotel and find a series of keys to access locked areas. This is certainly not original but is handled well enough to make any genre fan feel at home. You’ll eventually find a mysterious object that can produce a loud noise to disorientate enemies, though it has limited charges and choosing when to use it becomes something to carefully consider. Managing the noise that you make and controlling your breathing is key throughout, and you’ll find yourself holding your breath as you walk through dust and smoke whilst resisting the urge to cough.
The twisting storyline will have you scouring every inch of the hotel and its surroundings, avoiding enemies and solving environmental puzzles to try and counteract the curse that has been cast over Sker. The puzzles aren’t especially taxing but will require some deductive reasoning to solve. Aside from the occasional inconsistency in enemy’s detection range, the game isn’t overly difficult once you get in the rhythm of hiding and sneaking down, but there will be moments when you become trapped in a corner and will have no choice but to reload. Mostly you’ll find such deaths useful as you can scout out an area when being pursued and plan your approach better for the next time.
I’m not a huge fan of stealth in games, but the atmosphere and setting of Maid of Sker was enough to keep me engaged. It does feel like an odd decision by Wales Interactive not to include traditional hiding mechanics. Yes, the blind enemies shouldn’t be hard to shake, but once they hear you they seemed to display uncanny abilities to track you down. At the same time, the hotel is filled with cupboards, wardrobes, and chests that all look like perfect hiding locations but are frustratingly relegated to background details.