MAID OF SKER, a new first-person survival horror game from Wales Interactive, is all about sound. It’s the thread that ties the narrative, gameplay, and presentation together to form an experience that’s compelling from start to finish, despite feeling somewhat familiar at times.
Set in 1898, you play as Thomas Evans – a composer who travels to the Sker Hotel after receiving a troubling letter from your beloved Elizabeth. Shortly after your arrival, it quickly becomes apparent that something horrible has happened to the hotel and Elizabeth’s family. Able to communicate with her via telephones located around the hotel, she says that she has locked herself in the attic to protect herself from “The Quiet Ones” – the enemies who roam the corridors of the hotel. She presents you with a task: you must retrieve four phonograph cylinders that, when all played at the same time, will play a song that should put a stop to whatever supernatural phenomena are plaguing the Sker Hotel.
Inspired by Welsh folklore, MAID OF SKER exceeds at its tone, pacing and atmosphere. The Sker Hotel makes for a chillingly effective setting and I was motivated to explore it while also remaining vigilant nearly every step of the way.
As previously mentioned, sound embodies just about every facet of the game. Gameplay is reminiscent of popular “sneak ’em ups” like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Soma (MAID OF SKER‘s story was helmed by the writer of the latter). Just like those titles, you will be stealthily maneuvering around the hotel in order to avoid enemy attacks, as you aren’t provided with a way to properly kill them.
With bags donned on their heads, enemies are unable to see, so they rely on their sense of sound. If you’re quiet, they will ignore you. If you’re too loud, they will detect your presence. The main stealth tactic featured in the game is a mechanic allowing you to hold your breath using both of your hands. Of course, this only lasts for a short while, so you must be careful not to be near any enemies when you run out of breath. Running is also a common way for enemies to spot you, so crouching is often recommended unless you need to make a quick getaway.
Though you are unable to kill enemies, MAID OF SKER does offer a handy tool for you to defend yourself with. This comes in the form of the Phonic Modulator – a spherical device that emits a loud noise that temporarily stuns enemies. There are cartridges scattered around the hotel that serves as the Modulator’s ammunition, so you must conserve these unless absolutely necessary, making the device more of a last resort than a standard weapon. While I do like the addition of this tool in the game, it did lead to a few issues. One is that it can feel cumbersome switching between stealth and the Phonic Modulator, which can sometimes make quick escapes a bit trickier. One other issue, which also pertains to the level design, is that depending on where you are in the hotel, bigger enemies can sometimes trap you in a corner, meaning that the Phonic Modulator doesn’t help you escape the enemy so much as it delays the enemy from killing you.
The game features two difficulty options – Easy and Normal. Easy is mainly designed for those who just want to experience the story, while Normal offers a more balanced experience. Stealth gameplay is mostly generous, aside from a few instances in which I was confused as to why an enemy heard me based on where I was positioned. Thankfully, these were pretty uncommon occurrences and I usually felt as though I could finagle my way around just about anything. There are also puzzles to be solved along the way, each one logically designed and never too challenging to cause any major frustration.
Throughout the hotel, there are safe rooms where you save the game using phonographs, which also feature audio recordings that peel back layers of the game’s story. It makes sense as a storytelling device and is a smart way to ensure you stay alert because if you die before you find the next phonograph, you run the risk of having to redo lengthy gameplay sequences.
On the Playstation 4, MAID OF SKER performed nicely. Though the frame rate dipped once or twice during outdoor sequences, it generally remained steady throughout my experience. The lighting is often gorgeous – I particularly love how elegantly the moonlight pierces through the hotel windows. The hotel is a joy to explore, with the art style reminding me at times of both the castle from Amnesia and Rapture from Bioshock. The game also encourages you to return to areas you have already been to, as puzzles you solve and keys you find can open doors that were previously locked. The map you’re provided with can be tricky to decipher, but through my own curiosity and desire to explore, I actually found that I had memorized much of the hotel layout anyway.
Complementing the wonderful atmosphere is a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. The original score consists of piano and orchestral pieces that match the setting and time period, lending an emotionally resonant and chilling ambiance for the game’s story and visuals. Singer Tia Kalmaru lends her voice to re-imaginings of classic Welsh hymns and the results have stuck with me long after the end credits rolled.
My playthrough lasted about seven hours, but the game does feature alternate endings as well as collectibles in the form of musical dolls and notes littered around the hotel, so players who enjoyed their first run should have an excuse to play through it again. Though it’s not without a few issues along the way, I was sucked into MAID OF SKER‘s world right from the start. Drawing from folklore rarely explored in media, it’s a fun, suspenseful journey that kept me on my toes and had me eager to see it through to the very end.
Should you decide to take the journey yourself, I hope you enjoy your stay at the Sker Hotel.
MAID OF SKER was released on July 28th, 2020, and is available on Playstation 4, PC, and Xbox One. A Playstation 4 code was provided to Nightmarish Conjurings for the purpose of this review.