Maid of Sker Review
Not very skery
Stealth games usually focus on visual detection. Whether you are hiding in shadows or crouching within curiously sporadic patches of grass, what the enemies see is more important than what they hear. It’s true that a few stealth games have pushed audio further, like The Last of Us and the original Thief, but even they are still predominantly about whether the player can be seen or not. Maid of Sker (pronounced scare) was a chance to break from the norm, as every threat you encounter is blind. This basic change makes for a different stealth horror adventure, but the crude gameplay and lack of scares leaves it ill-equipped against the competition.
You play as Thomas Evans, a composer who has received a letter from his beloved Elisabeth that compels him to come to Sker Hotel and bring her a new piece of music. Upon arrival, the late 19th century hotel appears to be abandoned. Closer inspection reveals blood stains and drag marks in the lobby. A nearby phone rings and Elisabeth is on the other end. She is somewhere in the hotel, hiding, and tells you to find four music cylinders. They are needed to reverse the effects of a supernatural song that has twisted her family and subjugated others caught under its spell.
Finding the cylinders is going to take some doing with locked doors and multiple floors. Notes scattered about the place hint at life before things went haywire, when they were preparing for a grand reopening in 1897. Gramophones provide clear audio snippets of Elisabeth singing and her family arguing, and these devices are also save points. In other parts of the hotel, certain doors require specific keys, like in the new Resident Evil games. After a short walk outside through a graveyard, to see a poor soul being tortured in the middle of the night, the stakes become as clear as day.
The hotel is a good size, and not too complex, so there are only limited places to explore in an iterative fashion. In the manager’s office is a projector that reveals the approximate location of all four cylinders but on an unfamiliar map. Partial maps of the hotel help to identify crawl spaces, gramophones, or blocked paths. As you explore, you will have to switch on the power and use elevators to move between floors. As far as adventure games go, the hotel is a well designed with clear objectives, and basic, but non-linear, progression.
But exploration is not going to be leisurely because roaming the halls are strange men with sacks over their heads—subservient victims of the haunting music that you’re here to counter. They’re entirely blind but have good hearing. If you bump into them or make too much noise, they’ll give chase and pummel you to death. Sneaking around is the best way to move from room to room, and merely waiting for them to pass is often the best approach.
On occasion this waiting might not work, as sack-heads group together and can trap you into a dead-end. Thankfully Thomas acquires a phonic modulator that stuns nearby threats, allowing him to get out of earshot. It uses single cartridges that are rare even on normal difficulty, so it is best deployed only when necessary. If you run out of charges then the only other stealth trick is being able to hold your breath. This is useful when one of the sack-heads gets close and there is nowhere else to go. Mostly this breath holding is needed to move through clouds of smoke or dust; coughing around the deranged is just asking for trouble, although even if you are pursued, you can usually escape without losing too much health.
Unfortunately there is not enough to the stealth gameplay. No audio distractions are available, aside from a few ineffective ones in the environment, like the buzzers in the lobby. It’s a pity you cannot grab a book and toss it down the hall. Thomas does not even get a source of light, which is disappointing since many areas in the Sker Hotel basement are annoyingly dark. There are no complex systems in the background as the inventory is only used sparingly, like to select keys, drink healing tonics, or re-equip the phonic modulator. The only thing that keeps the stealth from being dull is the dynamic patrols that seem to change direction based on your location.
Not only is the stealth cruelly basic, it is also clunky on normal difficulty. Doors open automatically for the sack-heads if they walk nearby, even if they are not going through that particular door. They never seem to hear doors opening either, despite being attentive enough to hear breathing. But the detection system is stranger still; there is typically a musical flurry that indicates you’re in trouble, but sometimes the sack-heads choose not to pursue or merely walk at you instead of run. They can stop chasing almost immediately or keep going forever, around halls and through rooms, even if you are crouched and silent. Their navigation routines also have a bit of trouble going through openings and around obstacles.
While the crude stealth is a large part of the game, there are also horror elements and a few puzzles. Neither part is particularly good. Almost every puzzle is disturbingly basic; either you need to match music or symbols, or maybe collect a valve or puzzle piece to place elsewhere. The main challenge is really navigating the hotel itself and remembering the layout. And the scares are few and far between. Men with sacks on their head do not create nightmares, and being beaten to death by them is tame. Even the gore is largely subdued until some brief flourishes near the end. There are a handful of satisfactory jump scares; one is associated with the game’s equivalent of Mr. X who, unlike his Resident Evil counterpart, knows exactly where you are at all times.
Horror games often rely on their presentation and Maid of Sker’s is simple and up to the task. One of the best components is the cohesive music. The various Welsh hymns with melodic voices give the game a distinctive audio style, although they could have been used more liberally. Visually the game is adequate with reasonable detail inside the hotel rooms. But the color-grading transitions are too aggressive and the lighting\bloom tends to make the world look hazy. It needed more contrast and variety. The technical side is also sufficient, although there were a few crashes and one spot where Thomas got stuck and fell through the world.
Maid of Sker sounds good on paper but the execution needed some fine-tuning. The hotel is nicely designed and well balanced in terms of size and complexity. It also looks and sounds the part. But sneaking past blind opponents is crude at the best of times and usually dull or partially broken. There is just not enough depth to the stealth mechanics over the five hour adventure when it takes up such a large part. And without much effective horror and only basic puzzles, Maid of Sker needed to do more to be heard.