Try to Scare Me
Survival Horror is a genre that is hard to truly get “right”. Recurring mechanics aside, the feeling of horror, to be horrified or scared, is an incredibly subjective and personal thing that is difficult for any developer to achieve consistently. Different people are spooked by different things, so crafting a universally terrifying experience for all the family is quite the uphill battle. Despite this, developers far and wide flock to the lucrative genre, with Maid of Sker from Wales Interactive being the latest to throw its hat into the ring. At the very least, it tries its darndest to make you pack a spare pair of briefs for your stay at the titular hotel. Try truly is the operative word of course because Maid of Sker is not exactly successful whilst it is trying to accomplish – on any meaningful level really.
Visiting Hotel Sker
You play as the mysterious Thomas, a gentleman who travels to the dilapidated Hotel Sker in search of his partner, Elizabeth. Things take a turn for the worst rather quickly, and you are informed that your lover’s family has gone a bit doolally, as have all of the guests. The only way to save everyone, or at the very least, Elizabeth, is to go on a spooky adventure in search of magical musical MacGuffins scattered in and around the mysterious hotel.
As you explore the various halls, rooms, and outdoorsy locations on offer, you will stumble across notes and other assorted tidbits that help flesh out the world, its history and what happened prior to your arrival. These are complemented nicely by audio logs in the form of phonographs (which double as your saving mechanism) giving you a brief insight into Elizabeth’s current plight. Considering that the game’s traditional story development is sparsely intermingled throughout the runtime, these do quite a bit to keep everything in context as you move from location to location. It does a respectable job of expanding upon the vagaries of Elizabeth’s conversations, and if you don’t want to put in the leg work, or you aren’t bothered, then you can always just ignore them. My issue isn’t with the delivery system itself, but with what was left on my metaphoric doorstep. The story was simply not interesting enough to keep me engaged and covered familiar ground in terms of themes, points and tropes. I simply did not care for Elizabeth and her plethora of woes, her family, the guests, or the staff.
Going from Place to Place
This was unfortunately made all the worse, by the gameplay, which if I was being kind, was mind-numbing. Despite being set in a beautiful mansion-like hotel, and coming with a rather snazzy map, Maid of Sker ends up being incredibly linear with locked doors barring entry to every path that is not the main. Regardless of what location you are exploring, you are ultimately prancing through a series of fancy corridors. Additionally, the game teases the idea that you may be hunted or stalked, but this as a concept, never materialises. For the most part, enemy encounters were scripted events or jump scares. The whole game felt incredibly formulaic, to the point of tedium. If enemies were not on screen, I could simply sprint to my heart’s content. Outside of the introductory dialogue telling me making noise was bad, I was not incentivized to be cautious or punished for being reckless.
This changes somewhat once you bump into an enemy of course. This is because the monsters in Maid of Sker are completely blind, and rely entirely on sound to operate. In theory, the slightest noise will set them off, and a chase will ensue. In reality, the AI is not fit for purpose and their ability to detect sound is somewhat janky, or at the very least, ineffective. During my gameplay I casually strolled passed the majority of these threats, holding my breath when needed. Sneaking was not a requirement, interacting was not a requirement. It appeared as if they couldn’t hear anything from more than a few feet away, and tested this by having my character cough up a lung whilst standing next to a fire. Instead of having my skull caved in, the nearby enemy just continued to walk in circles, oblivious to the racket I was making. Whatever lingering tension these guys could have caused, is squandered by their complete ineptitude.
Amazingly this is made even worse by the actual monster design – a design the game flagrantly rubbed in your face about twenty minutes in. They are essentially regular humans, without faces. A disturbing thought for most people I am sure. However, when you are shown a bloke with what looks to be a shopping bag on his head, for an almost hilariously prolonged length of time, you lose whatever horror they were meant to instill. I saw what was trying to kill me, in all its glory, and it made me chuckle. As a result, every subsequent encounter was tensionless, and when the AI made them look as competent as a three-wheeled trolly, I quickly lost all sense of fear – and interest.
Sneak or Beat?
Despite having a “focus” on stealth, Maid of Sker does have a few mechanics in place for when the going gets tough. You will eventually be armed with a rather creative sound-based orb that acts like a radial stun. This lets Thomas jaunt past most enemies without much issue which is rather handy when the game starts ramping up the numbers a tad. In true Survival Horror fashion, ammo for your orb is somewhat scarce, so it is more of an emergency panic button than a reliable disposer of bin-bag witches. You will also find a number of healing tonics as you traverse the hotel’s ruined grounds, helping you keep your health topped up should you take too much of a clouting.
Beautiful or Blurred?
What really took me out of the whole experience, more than anything else was the game’s visuals. This is for a multitude of reasons. I won’t deny that Maid of Sker is an undeniably beautiful game to behold, as evidenced by the screenshots scattered throughout this article. However, these are static, unmoving shots. In reality, if you so much as think about moving, the game seems to writhe in agony, dynamically adjusting the game’s resolution, furiously dropping frames and smearing vaseline over your screen in an attempt to hide its hopeless flailing. Needless to say, the world becomes incredibly blurry and difficult to focus on. If you decide to actually move the camera, everything is exacerbated. I messed around with the Xbox One versions graphical settings and turned off Motion Blur, however, this didn’t seem to make a noticeable difference.
On top of the issues when the camera moves, the game is painfully sluggish to control. There is a noticeable, significant delay between moving the analog stick, and anything actually happening on screen. When taken into consideration with the game’s other flaws, it almost seems like the game is preparing to load every time you want to move. The whole thing left me with an uncomfortable headache about half an hour into a play session.
The only redeeming feature of Maid of Sker is its hauntingly beautiful music. Inspired by traditional Welsh folk songs, these vocal performances are a real treat to listen to each and every time they crop up. Aside from the expressive arias on display, you also have a variety of fairly generic horror pieces that are there for good measure.
Voice acting was fairly hit or miss, with Elizabeth being the standout performance of the bunch and everyone else kind of chilling in mediocrity.
This is all topped off with some pretty damn effective ambient sounds that permeate the experience. Be prepared to hear creaks and cracks from every direction, in true horror game fashion.
Maid of Sker is a competently made game (cornea searing visuals aside), but an awfully executed horror title. From start to finish it struggled to garner, let alone maintain, any semblance of interest of intrigue. The only scare comes from its title and the physical pain it caused was irritating to say the least. As a result, I can safely say that it is not a game worth your time, and you should absolutely give this one a solid miss.
MAID OF SKER IS NOT RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Wales Interactive for an XBox One review code for this title.
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Forged in the rainy wilds of northern England, I carved a path of mediocrity through generations and genres. My play style is often described as: “optimistically awful”.