What do you get when you combine puzzle-solving, crouching, first-person survival, sound-based enemies, more crouching, a haunting score, a spooky hotel setting, lots of crouching, atmospheric horror, stealth based defense (i.e crouching), and a narrative adapted from an old Welsh folklore tale?
A thoroughly unproductive, yet amazing, weekend.
Maid Of Sker, the newest release from Wales Interactive, is insanely playable, wonderfully crafted, masterfully atmospheric, genuinely eerie, and immensely frustrating in the best possible way. You play as Barty Crouch Jr. -er, sorry, Thomas Evans, a musician called to the Sker Hotel by his lover Elizabeth, who is being held captive there by her father. A curse has befallen those on its grounds; a siren’s song holds them all in a trance.
The story follows Thomas’ harrowing trek, a mission entrusted to him by Elizabeth, through the hotel to locate music sheets and cylinders embossed with the counter-melody needed to break the spell. Thomas navigates through to different rooms and storeys by locating objects and solving puzzles that reveal previously hidden or inaccessible areas of the hotel. He must do all this while remaining as silent as possible, as the monsters roaming the halls may have been robbed of their sight but no sound eludes them.
If only Thomas can collect the cylinders and reach Elizabeth, he can save them all from a terrible fate – but a question arises. Can Elizabeth truly be trusted after her time in confinement or is she also complicit in her family’s sinister machinations? While the general themes for the premise may seem fairly run-of-the-mill, the game’s execution of them is brilliant.
What you get from Maid Of Sker in terms of gameplay is exactly what is promised. The sound-based enemies are infuriatingly sensitive and unrelenting in their chase. (And those are just the generic enemies. Wait until you encounter the terrific beast that is Uncle Abraham). Think you’re safe because you’re crouched down and holding your breath? WRONG. If they come too close, they’ll still attack. Think you’re safe behind a closed door? WRONG. They can open them. Think you’re safe running away? WRONG. Not only will they chase you, they will cry out to every other nearby enemy.
In fact, there are exactly three places (As far as I can confirm) where enemies cannot harm you.
- Elevator shafts
- When you are crouched in tunnels between walls
- In rooms containing phonographs (which also act as your save points)
While your survival in the game is overwhelmingly stealth based, you do have one very important piece of defensive equipment in your Phonic Modulator, a cartridge based weapon that emits a sound wave which temporarily paralyzes the enemies in its range. One note about it – use it sparingly. The cartridges are few and far between, and largely unnecessary in most instances. In my playthrough, I used it only twice and I’m terrible at video games. That being said if you’re like me and thinking the smart thing to do is stockpiling the few cartridges you can get in order to use them later in the game when you encounter greater foes, don’t.
No spoilers, but it turns out that was not the smart thing to do.
In addition to acting as save points, the phonographs contain portions of Elizabeth’s recordings which help Thomas slowly unravel the mysteries of her family’s story, and her role in it. Elizabeth also acts as somewhat of a guide through sporadic phone calls you receive from her as she hides in the attic from the terrors that roam the halls.
The game promises the possibility for multiple different endings based on your choices throughout, and offers the enjoyable feature of exploring some of those options without having to play through the entire game again. When the credits have rolled, you’re still given the option to return to your last save point and choose a different path, or forego the ending altogether for the time being and continue exploring the hotel for any collectibles or other items you may have missed.
For the completionists out there, it’s a very nice little bonus feature.
Fans of the Amnesia series in particular will feel right at home with what Maid Of Sker offers survival horror fans. I realize this may seem blasphemous to the Dark Descent die-hards out there, but I’ll be honest; Maid Of Sker is everything you loved about Amnesia but with more sophistication. It’s Amnesia without the incessant and clunky flashbacks, with more threatening enemies, more intuitive controls, puzzles that are neither overly convoluted nor overly simplistic, better narrative pacing, a better ambient score, and a superior climax.
Now, of course it needs to be said that the original Dark Descent was released 10 years ago, so I don’t draw these parallels to discredit it because I actually played through it for the first time very recently and absolutely loved it. I’m just saying that Maid Of Sker feels very much like an elevated version of all the things that made Amnesia such an enjoyable gaming experience.
I truly adored this game. The most difficult part of playing it before its official release was not being able to tell anyone who would listen how much I loved it and why which is why I’m doubly grateful for the opportunity to tell all of you now. If you’re a survival horror fan, this really is a must play. Even for those of you who don’t generally play horror, I can’t recommend it enough. Once I started, I didn’t want to stop until I’d reached the end.
In fact, I didn’t even want to stop when I did reach it because I went back to see another ending, and then back again to try and complete my search for collectibles. Hell, I wish I was playing at this very moment but my boyfriend is monopolizing the PS4 now that I’ve finally let it go for more than five whole minutes.