Not a Hotel You Want to Revisit
Wales doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media. I know I’m speaking for a lot of Welsh people when I say that it still comes as a shock when people outside the UK recognize Wales as a country. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly proud of any part of my ancestry, Welsh or otherwise, (although my English Great Grandmother Eileen was being bullied by Margaret Thatcher in school and knocked her out, so there’s that) but I do consider myself primarily Welsh, and get a flutter of excitement to see my country portrayed in a movie or game.
That’s partly what drew me to Maid of Sker – a horror game ostensibly based on Welsh mythology, but first off, I’m going to rip off a band-aid. I grew up on Welsh mythology and I found close to zero aspects of it represented in the game. Sker House does exist, and it’s reportedly haunted by the ghost of Elisabeth, who was at one point locked up there… but that’s it. It certainly feels Welsh- there’s a focus on music, aquatic imagery, and a constant sense of despair that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s wandered down a Welsh high street at 2AM- but rather than bringing you some new and unfamiliar monster, the game decides instead to focus on Greek mythology. It’s not that I don’t like Greek mythology- I love it- but it’s like ordering a lasagne and getting spaghetti. It’s got elements of what you were looking for, but it’s not quite there.
Ready for a Skery Story?
On a narrative level the story was interesting. You play as Thomas Evans, a Welsh composer who gets a letter from his girlfriend, Elisabeth, who’s being held captive by her father in his hotel, Sker House. You quickly find that things have gone terribly wrong, with the hotel staff (Who inexplicably share only a handful of character models) donning burlap sacks and wandering the halls attacking anybody who dares make a sound.
I loved the story, as misleading as I found the premise. While it was by no means the most interesting story I’ve ever heard it was still a mystery I wanted to uncover. There were a couple of unanswered questions, but nothing I cared about enough to replay the game to answer. Like many games, there are alternative endings based on one decision during the finale, but you do need to go through a little bit of extra work to get the second ending.
Gameplay proceeds much like Outlast, Amnesia, or any number of similar games, although Thomas is quite possibly the least agile character I’ve ever seen in a game, at points incapable of climbing over a branch or steep curb. At multiple points, I’d be puzzled as to why I wasn’t moving only to look down and see an obstacle Thomas could easily have stepped over. There’s little in the way of innovation outside of the fact that enemies can hear- but not see- you, which only adds further questions. Despite the fact that they’re blind, at no point does Thomas think about taking one of the many (inexplicably lit) lanterns or candles that dot the dark hotel, or throwing a rock or book as a distraction. However, there were a couple of genuinely tense moments, especially later in the game, and a couple of legitimately well-done jump scares.
There were also a couple of interesting puzzles throughout the game, and a couple of genuinely tense moments, but I didn’t find the puzzles taxing, or even complicated- often they come down to “press these switches in this order” but if it wasn’t for the fact that the AI can hear you kick a book from six rooms away there’d be no challenge at all. My favorite puzzles were the ones that used sound, forcing you to draw the enemies’ attention- but I do wish that this was used outside of puzzles instead of forcing you to patiently wait for your enemies to leave an area you need to get to.
Solid Save System
Undoubtedly one the best element of the game’s design is the save system, and it’s something I hope gets incorporated in other games: to save, you need to interact with Phonographs throughout the hotel, each of which plays an audio file. It was a great move and it really drove me to discover all of the save points, not only to avoid replaying encounters after collecting whatever item I needed but to discover more about the story.
I was expecting a lot more from the AI. Enemies seemed to forget that they were blind as soon as they heard you so I often found myself sprinting around a corner and ducking down to hide, only for an enemy to zone in on my exact location anyway, even if I crept around. There’s one recurring enemy that doesn’t seem to be blind at all, and when I first faced him I died six times before realizing that I had to run, rather than hide.
On a graphical level, there were a couple of issues. I played on a PlayStation 4 and there was frequent ghosting, especially when doors were opening or Thomas covered his mouth. It wouldn’t have bothered me if it was less frequent, but it happened often enough to get distracting, then annoying. The actual game looks good- maybe not as crisp as other games, but it’s well designed for the most part. Five years ago we’d be raving about the graphics but, as good as they are, they feel dated. After a while of wandering through Sker House, I started to get a sense of where I was in the building and how to get around in a way I haven’t in many games, which was a definite bonus- although I did find myself checking the map to see what Thomas had marked down as significant, like a model ship he inexplicably decided hid a puzzle.
On a sound design level, I did have a fair amount of problems. First of all, if you’re not a native English speaker, tread carefully with the language settings. I was amazed to see Welsh offered as a language (with a separate option for subtitles) but when I clicked on the option to see how well it worked I was annoyed to see that the actors still spoke English, with the notes and subtitles in Welsh. I can’t say for certain whether the same occurs in, say, French or Spanish, but I found it misleading.
Did You Hear That?
I also got annoyed very quickly with how the ambient sounds worked. Often I’d hear a noise be replaced with another immediately after exiting a room in a way that felt unnatural and, in a game with such an emphasis on stealth, I was annoyed to find that whether they’re six rooms away or two feet away, the Quiet Ones always sound just as loud. This made for a frustrating experience, and more than once I opened a door in the face of one of the enemies. It’s not that the noises aren’t good- they are- it’s just that they play with no purpose, or at volumes so loud you can’t tell where the enemy is. There’s no effort to blend the sound design in a way that feels natural, which is a big mistake for a game that’s so focused on sound as a whole. The big exception is the music- it’s no surprise that a soundtrack is available on vinyl because it really is a strong point.
Where the game excels is atmosphere. Thomas may take zero of the advantages he has against his pursuers but it does make him feel weak and powerless. Thomas can’t take many hits and charges for your only weapon and health tonics are few and far between, which means that you dread every encounter. Thomas makes more noise when injured so it can snowball, and you need to decide how long you can go about without using a precious health tonic you may need later. With some fine-tuning, the game could have been brilliant. As it is, it’s only okay.
All in all, did I like Maid of Sker? That depends. I’ve certainly played worse games, and I’ve heard worse ghost stories. It didn’t scare me as much as I would hope, but there was some chilling imagery and a couple of moments that made me jump. On a narrative level, I can see the developer’s trying to make a point about colonialism or slavery, or even the history of English rulers trying to stamp out the Welsh language much like The Quiet Ones try to stamp out any noise. There’s a genuinely good- even great- idea here but the gameplay and execution let it down, and the marketing cared more about selling something unique than selling something accurate. I got something close to what I ordered, but not quite close enough for me to want a second helping.
**PS4 Key Provided by the Publisher**
- Interesting storyline
- Some great sound design
- Some legitimately tense moments
- Frequent graphical issues
- Lack of gameplay mechanics
- Inconsistent AI