Will you answer the Siren’s call?
There is a new survival horror game out on PS5 this month (well, a newish next-gen upgraded version of the game anyway), and I’m not talking about Resident Evil. Maid of Sker was previously released by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, and has received the next-gen upgrade treatment for PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. Can the small Indie developer known for trying to bring back the ‘FMV’ style of game (baaaaaad idea) find some success with a game in a more mainstream genre? Read on my friends, read on…
The story of Maid of Sker bears little resemblance to the original Welsh folk song (or the novel of the same name). The game is set in 1898 in Wales and we embody Thomas, a silent protagonist (unless you consider grunts and screams as speaking). He is sent a letter by his lady friend Elisabeth along with her mother’s musical locket. Elisabeth requests that Thomas write a song, indeed a ‘counter song’ to the melody played by the locket (whatever that is), and to bring his music to her in the Sker Hotel managed by her father. Unfortunately, she cannot provide any further detail in her letter…how convenient.
Thomas of course obliges to Elisabeth’s request and rushes to the hotel via train. On arrival, Thomas is greeted not by a thankful Elisabeth, but by a ringing telephone in the lobby of a dilapidated hotel filled with crazy cult members. Upon answering the phone, Thomas is pleased to hear that Elisabeth is on the other end of the line. She explains that she has barricaded herself in the attic to protect herself from her father, her uncle, and the strange people now inhabiting the hotel. She tasks Thomas with locating four musical cylinders hidden throughout the hotel that if played on the organ/harmonium in the hotel ballroom will turn everything back to normal. What is it that needs to be turned back to normal you ask? The ‘Quiet Ones‘ – staff and guests of the hotel that have been driven insane. They roam the grounds with sacks over their heads, viciously attacking anything that makes a sound.
Thomas is generally left to his own devices to complete the game’s quest and other than some brief phone conversations with Elisabeth there are no other verbal interactions of which to speak. However, there are a number of clues scattered around the hotel in journals and on scraps of paper that provide further plot exposition. Elisabeth’s family has been part of a cult for generations, after her ancestors appear to have encountered the mythical Siren out in the open sea when sailing back to Wales. What was it about the Siren’s song that was so alluring?
The main story mode of Maid of Sker can be best described as a survival/stealth horror game. We control Thomas from a 1st person perspective as he skulks around the hotel finding clues, solving puzzles and picking up the musical cylinders without being discovered by the Quiet Ones. Fortunately, the Quiet Ones wear sacks over their heads and are for all intents and purposes blind. They can only locate you when you are silly enough to bump into furniture or try to walk through a dust cloud and cough your lungs out when they are in earshot. Unfortunately, in what may be a frustrating choice for some players, for the majority of the game we are literally defenseless. Even when the game is nice enough to provide a ‘weapon,’ this can only be used to temporarily stun enemies and cannot kill them, and in typical style the ammo for this weapon is extremely limited. More frustratingly, there is a point when this weapon is simply taken away from you for the rest of the game.
Whilst I must admit to finding this complete lack of any offensive power incredibly frustrating in the early going, by the later game it does provide you with some tense moments. Thomas does control well enough, and there were never any moments where I felt a death in the game was caused by anything other than my own poor choices.
The puzzles in the game are all intuitive enough to solve without needing to look up a guide, and there are typically ample clues around to help you if you get stuck. In truth I would have liked a bit more variety in the puzzles here, and there is nothing ground-breaking that you haven’t seen done in similar games elsewhere. Find item X to open secret passageway Y that leads you to key Z etc. etc. That being said, the offering here is solid and if you like this style of game, then it is an enjoyable way to pass some time.
I must point out that the main story is relatively short even for survival horror, and can be completed in about 4-6 hours (more if you want to find all of the collectable items and uncover the full backstory). Originally released as an Indie title by Wales Interactive for the PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2020, the team have gone above and beyond in providing something new for this next-gen upgrade with a collection of completely new game modes.
These 4 modes whilst all somewhat similar in their goal (escape the hotel with a limited number of lives/deaths) and do show that the game developers listened to some of the complaints of the original game. The two main differences in these additional ‘Challenges’ as they are called are:
- You now have access to 4 different weapons (Axe, Handgun, Shotgun, Rifle).
- There are a number of different enemy types that you need to mow down on your way out of the hotel.
The new experiences do give you that feeling of power that you severely miss in the main story and are worth a bit more of your time. But they probably won’t be something that significantly extends your time with the game as the FPS style controls and gameplay are just not up to par with dedicated FPS games.
Certainly my favourite element of the gameplay is the way that music and sound are utilised throughout the adventure. The crescendoing shrieks of a dissonant string orchestra will warn you of danger nearby. Alternatively, a simple change in the background music to a music box tune will alert you to an important item or save point nearby. What is that you hear? The rattle of a key turning a lock in the distance? You go to investigate… you have now opened the door to the next section of the review.
Presentation is both a strength and a weakness of Maid of Sker. On the negative side, and as we might reasonably expect from an indie title with a small development team, the visuals here are rough around the edges. This was a late generation PS4 game, but it really wouldn’t look out of place on a PS3 when you compare it to the big AAA games on that platform (think Last of Us and Uncharted 3). Similarly to the lack of variety in the gameplay, there is also a similar deficiency here. The one main type of enemy is very bland looking and their animation is a bit janky, and the main boss is not much better.
That being said, there has clearly been a lot of care and attention to detail here in regards to the environmental details here such as the trimmings of the hotel, the art on the walls and the furniture strewn around the rooms. There are a number of brief/small set-pieces that made me stop and say ‘that was sick‘ (in a good way), whereas other moments seem to fall flat, or almost appear comical in nature due to the animation. Despite the game’s clear limitations in terms of visuals, the gritty, dark Sker Hotel and surrounding grounds provide a great atmosphere particularly when combined with the aforementioned best element of the game – the sound design.
I was blown away by the quality of the sound and music in this game. It is by no means perfect, but clearly sound design is the highlight of the Maid of Sker experience. Given that ‘music’ is a core aspect of the game’s story and gameplay, it is obvious that the developers really put some effort in to this part of the game. The soundtrack is haunting and the perfect fit to this game, particularly in the build up to the game’s finale. Sound effects are also generally good, but can occasionally be a little more miss than hit, for example some of Thomas’ falling/death screams seeming more funny/hilarious than scary. Thomas is silent throughout the game other than his breathing, screaming and yelling. Elisabeth, however, is fully voiced during the numerous phone calls with her, and the Gramophones that are used as this game’s save point (like the Typewriter in Resident Evil) will also play a recorded voice clip of Elisabeth and her family.
Some PS5 features also helped improve the experience such as the fast loading times and the utilisation of the Dual Sense controller’s haptic feedback. Thomas’ heart rate will increase and become stronger depending on the situation he finds himself. It is subtle but again helps build on the game’s strong atmosphere and overall experience.
Maid of Sker was made by a small core team of less than 15 people, and at times it does show. As noted above, the base game is very short for a modern game. Even in this game’s genre, this one feels a little bit short for me. This may be as a result of the repetitiveness in the enemies and the puzzles.
That being said, the atmosphere that is built though the soundscape of this game is excellent. You can feel the pressure and tension of sneaking past groups of enemies, and the relief of snatching the item that you need to progress without being found.
There is nothing here that can be considered broken or otherwise gamebreaking. The game is a solid package and everything works. I played through the full story and multiple attempts at the challenge content and did not come across any bugs or crashes on PS5. Maid of Sker can’t compete at the level of a game like Resident Evil: Village – but we have to accept that a AAA game would have had at least 10 times the number of staff working on the game as Maid of Sker.
For what it is Maid of Sker is an enjoyable, if not short, experience that provides an intriguing story, a creepy atmosphere with some occasional jump scares and a cracking soundtrack.
So, why should you play it?
- You are a survival/horror buff and want to experience a different and unique story.
- Zombies, Vampires and other common horror tropes bore you and you want something more.
- Not much time to play? No worries with this, you can get through it easily without too much of a time sink.
But, why shouldn’t you play it?
- BOO! (did that scare you?)
- You prefer a game that you can engage with for a long period of time.
A review code on PlayStation 5 was provided for the purpose of this review.