I’ve always loved Wales. Being a quarter Welsh and having a Welsh name, I have fond memories of childhood visits to my father’s hometown in north Wales, as well as not so fond memories of being forced to watch loads of rugby (my Dad being a huge Rugby Union fan). Wales is a land with lots of harsh, rugged scenery and lots of harsh, wet weather to accompany it. Wales Interactive have been best known up to this point for their range of FMV-games, such as Late Shift and The Bunker. Now, they’ve turned their attention to the world of survival horror with Maid of Sker (pronounced like the word “scare”), drawing lots of inspiration from Welsh folklore and the similarly named Victorian novel by R.D. Blackmore.
It’s 1897 and you’re Thomas Evans, a composer who is sent a letter by his love Elizabeth, asking him to come to the remote Sker Hotel where she has been imprisoned by her family. Upon arriving at the hotel you discover the inhabitants have become possessed by a demonic song which has turned them into faceless nightmares, stalking the ruined halls of the hotel and listening for the slightest noise. Most of the game involves exploring the hotel and grounds to recover several musical cylinders which can be fitted inside a pipe organ, to lift the curse from the hotel and save Elizabeth. Along the way, you’ll need to avoid raising the ire of the monstrous people whom the music has transformed. The plot is quite interesting and certainly kept me involved, as well as the unique Victorian Wales setting.
Gameplay is very standard for a survival horror game, allowing you to walk, sprint (although Thomas is clearly not an athlete and begins panting after running 10 metres) and crouch to avoid enemies. Oddly, despite the hotel being full of large wardrobes and cupboards there is no hiding mechanic such as in games like Alien: Isolation or Outlast. Therefore, as the enemies are essentially only drawn to noise, so long as you hide in a corner and remain silent (utilizing the ability to hold your breath) you should be able to remain undetected. The AI is sometimes unpredictable though, occasionally being brain-dead and other times having an uncanny ability to know where you are. Doing small things like walking into furniture also makes noise, so you’ll want to be careful not to approach tables with too much vigour. I also would have appreciated the ability to lean around corners, especially given some of the winding corridors the hotel features.
The game clearly shows a lot of inspiration from Resident Evil, both the new and older games. From the old, there are a number of phonographs dotted around the place which act as manual save points (and serve as a useful method for automatically listening to audio recordings). While this helps keep your tension high to make sure you can make it to a phonograph, it can lead to frustration if you die after a long break from seeing one. From the newer games, the in-game map helpfully shows you rooms you’ve explored as well as locked doors and items in rooms you haven’t interacted with. The hotel takes a lot of cues from Resident Evil 2’s police station, such as initially gating off rooms and areas with colour-coded keys or statue puzzles.
In terms of environments and general style, Maid of Sker has it in spades. The ruined hotel is gloriously creepy and has excellent sound design, the creaking of floorboards and muffled bumping sounds reminding me quite a lot of BioShock’s groaning and shuddering flooded metropolis. Great sound often makes or breaks horror games, and this is definitely an area where the game shines. One downside is that I felt that exterior locations feel like the colours were quite washed out (with quite a bit of artificial bloom and glare), but this problem didn’t extend to interiors. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy the somewhat generous usage of motion blur, but this can be disabled in the menu.
Maid of Sker doesn’t break the mold of traditional survival horror, but it executes its formula with proficient aplomb. The Welsh countryside forms an interesting and unique backdrop for this gothic Victorian tale of mystery and horror. It might not be downright terrifying, but it remains highly atmospheric and creepy throughout, with not too many cheap jump-scares thrown in.