Innovative use of sound and a great narrative let down by grainy graphics and poor frame rates.
- Developer: Wales Interactive
- Publisher: Wales Interactive
- Release date: 28th July 2020
- Genre: Survival Horror
- Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: Xbox One X
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
A very British horror
Maid of Sker is a first-person supernatural survival horror, centred around Welsh folklore based on the real-life Sker House. Set in 1898, the story places you in the shoes of Thomas Evans, a musician who has set out to find out what has happened to his betrothed, Elizabeth Williams.
When you arrive at Sker House, the whole place is in a state of advanced disrepair. Signs advertise a grand re-opening that either never happened, or was very short-lived. Sker House itself is a grand building, with labyrinthine rooms, passages and tunnels.
The premise of the game is that Elizabeth’s father has discovered a supernatural force, akin to sirens, that he and the family were using to lure unsuspecting sailors to their deaths on the shores around Sker House. They have also been luring unsuspecting guests to their deaths as sacrifices for this malevolent entity. Exposure to this force has turned Elizabeth’s family and other people into sightless monsters, the Quiet Men, stalking the hallways, rooms and grounds of Sker House.
Elizabeth, trapped in the attic, has composed a counter-song, that has been split into four parts. You must locate the counter-song and rescue her, solving puzzles, avoiding traps and using stealth to avoid the monsters along the way.
Made to Sker
The developers have done a great job of creating an ambience that fills you with a palpable sense of dread and apprehension. The constant shroud of darkness is offset by candlelight that casts flickering light and shadows, constantly making you do double-takes as your eyes catch something moving in the gloom.
Even more atmospheric than the imagery is the superb soundtrack and ambient effects. Maid of Sker alternates between hauntingly beautiful, yet creepy, takes on classic Welsh hymns, and some of the most sinister orchestral and piano-based horror music I’ve ever heard. This sound plays a key part in not only accentuating the unsettling atmosphere but serves as audible cues to notify you if an enemy is close, or to guide you to your objective.
Complementing the score is a suite of excellent ambient audio. Everywhere you go in Sker House, you are accompanied by disconcerting sounds; creaking floorboards, menacing growls and groans, the relentless shuffling footsteps of the faceless monsters, and the cries and whimpers of their hapless captives. It’s an exemplary demonstration of how much depth and immersion can be created with great audio.
The enemies in Maid of Sker are slow-moving, but so are you. You can run, but this makes a lot of noise and they are attracted to sound. It’s possible to let them pass within inches of you without detection, but if they are that close, you have to hold your breath to avoid detection. The Quiet Men follow roughly the same path, but it’s usually within a certain area, and they frequently change up their pattern of movement making avoiding them a tense affair.
When they get close, every fibre in your being is telling you to run, but this is the worst thing you can do. If they come close, you have to crouch and walk away, making sure you don’t bump into anything. It genuinely makes for some of the tensest moments I’ve ever had in a game. If they do catch you, they’ll start raining blows down on you, and you can’t take many hits. If you do manage to evade them, you can heal yourself with tonics, but they are few and far between.
Worst of all, you can’t fight back… You do have a tool at your disposal, as early in the game you find a device called a Phonic Modulator that emits sounds that distracts and immobilise the creatures. But, like tonics, you can only use it infrequently as charges are few and far between. This sense of disempowerment is implemented very well and makes Maid of Sker a masterclass in creating an unsettling atmosphere.
There is no auto-save in Maid of Sker. Dotted around the mansion are rooms (signified by a green-hued door) containing gramophones. These gramophones create manual save-points, as well as providing a little bit of story exposition. Because of the lack of autosave, I’d recommend you visit these frequently, especially after some of the tenser moments.
On more than one occasion, I completed a lengthy stealth section, only to suffer an unavoidable death, causing me to lose a not-insignificant amount of progress. There is an achievement/trophy for completing the game without saving, but I highly recommend not attempting this on a first playthrough.
In a move clearly lifted from Silent Hill, the sinister music in save rooms is replaced by a far more calming piece of music, and entering these rooms provides welcome relief from the encroaching pressure that you feel throughout the majority of the game. This isn’t the only thing reminiscent of Silent Hill, though. Maid of Sker has many gameplay and design elements that pay homage to the horror classic.
Less Sker, more, “Where?”
Maid of Sker features numerous puzzles to solve, and it does a good job of not holding your hand and allowing you to think them through for yourself. Some may be as simple as finding switches to access an object needed for progression, but others are slightly more unintuitive. For the most part, the puzzles can be solved without too much stress, but some of them I had to resort to trial and error to solve. Whether this was because I missed a clue I’m not sure, but it’s frustrating being met with a puzzle with no idea how to solve it.
This lack of direction also causes problems in exploration and progression. There are no waypoints, and while you can usually methodically work your way around each area until you have discovered everything you need, there are times when you may become frustrated that you don’t know where to go.
I was making progress at one point, and the game led me to a graveyard. I could see what looked like the logical place to go, but couldn’t figure out how to access it. Despite searching all around the location, I was none the wiser. After backtracking to the house, I then went around all the rooms I’d previously explored in case I’d missed anything. After over an hour of meticulous searching, I found myself back at the graveyard. By chance, I found a gravestone that triggered the next sequence of events.
Throughout my playthrough, and even after experiencing this initial time-waste trying to find the gravestone, this happened to me a few times. I’m all for being given the freedom to discover and deduce what to do next, but sometimes the next step can be unnecessarily difficult to fathom out.
While the sometimes unclear puzzling and exploration can be an annoyance, the graphical performance is a lot more disappointing. On PC, Maid of Sker runs at 4k with an unlocked framerate. On consoles, however, it’s not so good. I reviewed Maid of Sker on the Xbox One X, for which it is apparently enhanced. Frame rates are a lowly 30 fps, sometimes lower, and the whole image is very grainy.
There are, undoubtedly, uses for film-style grain, and you could argue that it fits the late 19th century aesthetic, but for me, the graphics were very underwhelming. Even something as simple as slowly turning created juddery motion. I dread to think what it’s like on an original or S model Xbox One. It’s a shame, as the artistic direction they have taken is excellent and creates a uniquely atmospheric experience, but it’s let down by the poor performance.
Maid of Sker is an excellent addition to the survival horror genre, utilising stealth effectively and offering moments that genuinely Sker, but it’s not without its shortcomings. The story, audio, and general atmosphere is superb, showcasing the talents of Wales Interactive’s team. Where it falters is in some unclear direction, its poor performance on console and somewhat archaic menu design.
For fans of the genre, there’s a lot to appreciate that’s not just a retreading of already established games. The glacial movement speed and punishing loss of progress if you make a mistake can be off-putting, though. For the approachable price point of £24.99, it’s worth a gamble, and I really enjoyed Sker’ing myself in Maid of Sker.