(Ed. Note: This was meant to go live before Oct. 31st, but was delayed due to a delay in editing from those of us on the editorial team. As this is a purely volunteer based site, real life comes first and sometimes we get too busy and fall behind. This is still relevant and worth a read though.)
Maid of Sker has crept past the Quiet Ones and onto the Xbox Gold lineup this month. This is of course just in time for Halloween. Set in the 1890s, at Sker Hotel on Sker Island, a fictional area of Wales, which is based on the real Sker House at Sker Point near Porthcawl in Wales. You play as Thomas Evans trying to save his love Elisabeth Williams from her sinister family. To save Elisabeth, you must tread lightly, exploring the hotel and grounds uncovering the Williams family secrets.
During development, the threat of legal action was made by the present owners of Sker house. It is the folklore of Sker House which is central to the game. Sker house is privately owned and the owners were not aware of the game until the announcement trailer a few years ago.
The plot of Maid of Sker is based on a local Welsh folk story and book of the same name. It has been embellished with local history and supposition regarding the Williams family. However, the main twist of the game forgoes the folk story and leans more into maritime mythology. Some may appreciate the deviation from the folk story. However, if people are familiar with the folktale’s ending it can leave them unsatisfied. Specifically referenced is the local history with regards to the wrecks which happened on Sker point.
Elisabeth is a fascinating character we see little of. As the player explores, they discover notes documenting her decline into despair as she uncovers revelations regarding her family. However, despite this we see her perseverance and desperate hope battling against her surroundings. Isaac meanwhile is incredibly nuanced. He is ruthless, driven and greedy. However, notes about his past reveal he was a good partner to Elisabeth’s mother and at one point did care for his daughter, father and brother.
The game has one final twist, the ending is multiple choice. Depending on your character’s actions you can have either a good or bad ending. The game hints at which is which via the context notes and clues. The one ending is incredibly hopeful, while the other is ominous yet still bittersweet.
Maid of Sker’s gameplay seems to have been inspired by several games. The stealth mechanics are similar to the Outlast and Alien games with a focus on sneaking. The weapon with the limited ammo, special keys, safe rooms, item based saving and collection is very reminiscent of Resident Evil 1 and 2.
The primary way to progress the story is by using phonograph save points and answering the phone. There are notes scattered around the game which give context to the narrative. You can change your difficulty setting throughout the game. This stops the player from becoming frustrated by settings you chose at the start of the game. Delightfully, you can play the game with Welsh subtitles and menus. As this is a Welsh developer and a game set in Wales it’s nice to see the language recognized.
A bizarre gameplay disconnect is that you are hiding from monsters which can hear you breathe, yet they don’t notice a phone ringing. For the most part you can answer the phone, play instruments and listen to phonographs without issue. There is one particularly difficult section two-thirds of the way through the game which can be frustrating for some. You also may be shown a cut scene insisting upon urgency, and when it ends you can stand there and for the most part be unaffected.
When this game wants to be beautiful, it is gorgeous. The opening cutscene with you on a train traveling along the South Wales Coast to Sker Island gives justice to the Welsh landscape. As you approach Sker Hotel, it feels oppressive and foreboding.
Despite these few moments of beauty the game is otherwise bland or incredibly difficult to see. The darkness does make for good atmosphere in places. Yet, in a game where all your enemies are blind and thus light isn’t a problem you cannot pick up a lamp. While lanterns may destroy the atmosphere a little at least the player isn’t walking into a wall assuming it’s a corridor. Sadly, the game’s graphic settings are way too complicated to help with the darkness. It took a few dozen tweaks to be able to barely see in certain rooms.
Sound and Music
The soundtrack to this game is beautiful. The game features three Welsh songs. The song which is most prominently featured is Calon Lan, which is one of the most famous hymns in Wales. The reviewer is Welsh and may be biased. However, Tia Kalmaru’s singing is mesmerising and haunting.
As is Gareth Lumb’s soundtrack, which when utilised was incredibly enjoyable. During specific moments of the game the same line of Calon Lan is used. After a few of these movements the lack of variety to these lines is notable. There are sections of the game without sound to build tension. Unfortunately those sections are a little overused taking the player out of the game.
For as short as Maid of Sker is, the plot has enough twists to keep even people who know the Maid of Sker book or folk story are hooked. The music in the game is haunting and beautiful, even if there is an over reliance on Calon Lan. However, while the game is pretty in places it’s also very graphically dark and perpetuates this even if story-wise it makes little sense. While the psychological horror that is Maid of Sker may get to some players, others may enjoy this short and nuanced game.
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