The first person adventure horror has become more popular with this latest generation of consoles, more than any that have gone before it. It’s a genre that has been utterly embraced by the smaller independent developers over the last few years with games such as Soma and Outlast leading the way. They provide a claustrophobic, scary, and tight piece of storytelling while delivering jump scares and survival gameplay to those who want it. Wales Interactive are best known as an amazing publishing house that manages to produce interesting FMV games, but it is not rare to see them venture into the scares too – Don’t Knock Twice being one that immediately springs to mind. Maid of Sker promises to keep to the same legacy of the games that come before it, all whilst delivering a completely new experience for the gamer. Does it succeed?
Maid of Sker is a first-person survival horror experience that is meant to be played with the sound turned up to 11 and the lights dimmed very low. Set in 1898, you play as a man called Thomas who arrives on a train in a small Welsh village looking to find his one true love who has gone missing. The game itself is based around Welsh folklore and a real-life ghost story about the mansion of Sker House. The ghost of Elizabeth Williams whose father locked her in a room is the inspiration here for this tale, but the high pedigree of writers working on this game manages to take this original idea and turn it into something amazing. The writing and atmosphere created are brilliantly realised and the story is, in a word, scary. I loved hearing the story getting dripped out bit by bit from documents or newspapers as you progress. Every time you save the game at a gramophone you get a piece of recording from that piece of equipment that feeds you the narrative as you progress. It works superbly.
Gameplay-wise and Maid of Sker comes with the normal mixture of exploration, provided by a fairly slow walk in the opening stages. You can run but the exertion results in you running out of breath, and that makes noise. And noise, in Maid of Sker, is a killer. Thankfully you can crouch and you pick up items in your inventory too, but there is no combat to be had at all.
The enemies you meet are the sort of strange cultists that revolve themselves around a plan that is accompanied by music and the power of song. Their faces are bound with dirty bandages or sack hoods so they have no vision, but an acute sense of hearing. So when you come across them you have to stay very still or hold your breath, covering your mouth with your hands for a short while. The problem is, if you hold your breath for too long you might start to cough which will alert those around you. The same is true should you enter a dusty area with spores in the air; you will start to cough and once again alert the enemies. Further still, should you bump into an object that makes noise as well – and believe me, it is hard to avoid doing that in certain areas in the game. You’ll want to keep as quiet as possible though as once the enemies start to hear you preparing an attack, it’ll be left to you to run. Fail to do so and it’ll only take a few hits for them to pummel you to the ground. Yes, there are tonics hidden around specific areas and these will boost your health, but they are rare to find.
Maid of Sker takes an early Resident Evil influence to its gameplay style, whereby you explore multiple levels of a main mansion and the gardens outside. The map shows you where the key items you need are; musical cylinders are to be found and question marks indicate where items of interest lay that will progress you further. You then have to work through a mixture of minor puzzle hunting, grabbing objects and placing them elsewhere, or listening in to other puzzles in which you may have to listen to a tune and play the song back on some bells. And as with any good exploration horror, there are shaped keys to collect which allow you to open certain doors.
Unfortunately another thing Maid of Sker borrows from the early Resident Evil titles is replicated in the save points – my major point of annoyance.
Maid of Sker will only allow you to save in a safe room, using a gramophone, and there are a limited number of these rooms in the game. The problem is, I’ve put up with this hardcore save system back in the 1990s but for many – myself included – this is a system that isn’t welcome. You will die a lot by the hands of the blind creatures, and later on as progression is made you will meet a Mr X-type of character who will haunt your dreams and kill you in an instant. This means that throughout you will end up repeating whole sections of the game, so much so that at times I’ve found myself replaying a good 20 minutes or so of gameplay. I just don’t see the point of this save system here, as it takes me away from the excellent story and ruins the atmosphere completely. Okay, some might love this device, but personally I’d rather see it confined to history. Each to their own I suppose.
The game does however have a lovely visual tone, with very good attention to detail in the interiors with regards to period features, and some brilliant uses of lighting. Some levels are very dark – which is the intention for a horror stealth game like this – however I do feel that it gets a bit too much in certain areas; especially the basement sections. Overall though, the Maid of Sker on Xbox One looks good, with some great work in the visual department.
The sound is exemplary throughout, with scary effects delivered via the screams of the enemies, to the click of a door and some ever-haunting footsteps. The voice acting is very good too with some nice performances delivered from all involved. But as it’s a game essentially about the power of song, then you’d expect the music to be good. Here it is excellent. Using renditions of actual Welsh hymns and all from the astonishing vocals of Tia Kalmaru, this – for me – is where the heart of the game lies. And it is in this audio scene where it builds the very best atmosphere.
Maid of Sker on Xbox One is a very good horror experience; one that manages to create an extremely creepy atmosphere and delivers a good story throughout. It borrows quite heavily from Resident Evil in the terms of its layout, puzzles, and maps, but that’s not a bad thing. The whole sound department needs a round of applause, especially the renditions of the hymns, but it is the entire save system that dampens the enjoyment of the game – it has been the unforgiving killing by the enemies then the need to repeat whole sections that really grates. And ultimately, it is that save system that lets Maid of Sker down.