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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

[Review] A Trip to the Welsh Coast Turns Sinister in Effective, Yet Uneven, Survival Horror ‘Maid of Sker’

Horror has had its formulas over the years. The basic structures from which the good, the great, and the rest are built from. On the surface, slashers are the same, survival horrors are all kindred spirits, and ghost stories try to spook you in more or less the same way.

That, of course, is massively over-simplifying things because the devil is in the details. You can spin many, many different kinds of yarn from the same wheel. 

Take Maid of Sker, for example. It’s the latest in a long line of modern first-person horror games (usually set in large buildings where you must uncover their seedy history) that leave you relatively defenseless against stalking enemies. Having that structure is clearly a winner or it wouldn’t be repeated so often, but you have to have some combination of ideas of your own to differentiate from not only the standout examples, but also the painfully plain attempts. So while Maid of Sker is another first-person horror game set in an old sinister building where you’re hunted by murderous things, it definitely does have something of its own too. Whether that is enough to make it a good game is another question altogether.

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Firstly, the story. Maid of Sker is based on Welsh folklore, specifically the tale of Elizabeth Williams and RD Blackmore’s three-part story. That provides an interesting departure from the current genre glut of cosmic horror tales and Texas Chainsaw fanfics. Instead, there’s a delightfully British feel to the surroundings, the atmosphere, and the horror itself. It’s a story of a family with a dark past, as its legacy is one of slavery, piracy, and murder. That past literally appears to have come back to haunt its current generation on the grounds of a secluded hotel on the Welsh Coast.

Before you get to the hotel, where the protagonist is seeking a reunion with a loved one, there’s a bit of traveling to do after you arrive at the quaint and quiet train station and set off up a winding forest road towards your destination. There’s a calming picturesque charm to this short walk, with the visual style making the scenery look like something from a painting. The warm and hazy glow of the sun, the gentle swoosh of wind through the trees; it’s the perfect way to set up the horrors you’ll soon face. A serene stroll through a beautiful place before the grim and dreary intensity of the dilapidated hotel. The intro is inarguably the most gorgeous-looking part of a game that is otherwise fairly standard, visually-speaking.

Upon entering the hotel it’s clear it’s rather neglected despite claims of a grand re-opening, and there’s nobody to greet you upon your arrival. After a bit of wandering, another person is discovered, or at least their voice behind a locked door, but it is soon silenced by something or someone that they seem awfully terrified by. It’s not long before you find out that the threat is a cult known as The Quiet Ones, and the game of cat and mouse begins in earnest.

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Maid of Sker leaves you largely defenseless against these strange and violent folk, and as such, is pretty much a stealth-based horror. The game has a rather smart 3D audio system that means the enemies, who rely on sound to track you, will know where a noise is coming from almost exactly. Knocked over a bucket? Best hope you either have somewhere to hide or somewhere to run because they will find you if you stick around.

The defenses you do have are simple ones. Holding your breath is a key mechanic in your continuing survival, and using noise to your advantage can help you slip by certain foes unnoticed, but when all else fails you do have one last trick up your sleeve in the form of a sonic device that emits a din not best received by the Quiet Ones. It’s not something that can be used freely however, so it needs to be handled with care.

The chase is where Maid of Sker needs to succeed most. For all its Gothic British horror charm, it wouldn’t be an effective horror game without creating the necessary tension, fear, and panic of being hunted. For the most part, it does a good job. There’s a genuine sense of dread permeating every new encounter, and while the sound mechanic can be a bit disorientating and frustrating at first, learning its rules does make it seem like you’re turning the tables on your foes in real-time.

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Sound really is Maid of Sker’s key selling point. With a budget likely far smaller than that of something like Resident Evil 7, it implements it smartly. Every floorboard creak, every clunking footstep, and each shaky breath you take adds to the growing uneasy atmosphere of the hotel. At least for a while anyway.

Towards the end of Maid of Sker, things get monotonous and the story’s conclusion isn’t especially satisfying or all that unique. So much is put into building up things in the opening hours, and there’s not all that much left to say after that as the whole thing runs out of steam. Frustration grows again as stealth becomes increasingly hard to do and punishment seems less fair.

Still, while it lasts, there’s a pretty good dose of first-person horror. The folklore background, period setting, and some hauntingly beautiful renditions of Welsh hymns add some flavor to a well-worn formula. The hotel’s nautical history and decoration also provide a bit of personality to the otherwise dreary halls. How you take to the stealth will determine how much you get on board with the game, as its peak is relatively small considering its liberal use.

While it may not be the most exotic horror establishment out there, I could think of worse places to visit than the Sker Hotel right now.

Maid of Sker review code for PS4 provided by the publisher.

Maid of Sker is out now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.


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