As horror games go, this indie adventure has greater appeal than most. Both history buffs and those with a passion for all things supernatural will revel in its Welsh folklore, with a plot drawing upon the 1872 novel The Maid of Sker – a chilling tale of the allegedly haunted Sker House. In keeping with this theme, developer Wales Interactive has woven a few Welsh hymns into the narrative too.
You play as Thomas Evans, a silent protagonist. He’s something of a blank slate, leaving you to decide upon his demeanour. One thing is certain â€“ he isn’t up for a fight. This is a combat-free experience, centred around staying quiet and out of harm’s way. Thomas is anxiously trying to find Elisabeth Williams, a well-known (and well-spoken) singer who’s being held inside the Sker Hotel’s attic against her will. To be reunited, the hotel’s mysteries must be overcome and its riddles solved.
In many regards, Maid of Sker isn’t entirely unlike an early Resident Evil â€“ albeit viewed in first person â€“ solving puzzles and locating keys while exploring a mansion of sorts, all while being stalked by a formidable, and unstoppable, foe.
A sedate intro entails Thomas arriving by train and slowly making his way through the picturesque Welsh countryside before reaching the hotel’s grounds. It’s a slow build-up, ultimately leading to the discovery of crazed zealots â€“ former guests, presumably â€“ who’ve taken residence and left the multi-floored hotel in disarray. The grand staircase is stained in blood, while the hotel’s rooms have been turned upside down. Elisabeth is able to use the hotel’s speakerphone system to communicate, which helps keep the story flowing and objectives clear, all while keeping Thomas’ eye on the prize.
Sound is a focal point here, and for reasons many. Thomas’ adversaries have cloaked faces, and as such are alerted to noise only. They patrol the hallways, stomping along pre-set routes. Cross their paths or make too much noise and they’ll dash to your location and lash out. One â€˜warning hit’ is all you get. Fail to escape their grasp a second time, and you’ll be subjected to an unavoidable bone-crunching fatality, casting you back to the last save room.
Thomas can cover his nose and mouth to reduce noise â€“ a mechanic also used when passing through dusty locations filled with exaggerated particle effects. Some enemies will also provoke Thomas to cough by throwing vials which create purple smoke. Later, a mysterious spherical object is discovered which can stun enemies temporarily. Due to having limited charges, it’s best used for getting out of binds. Eluding more than one foe is tough as they’re swift on their feet.
Save rooms (there’s no auto-save, incidentally) are highlighted by green doors, each of which contains a gramophone playing a scratchy back story-expanding record. Because enemies cannot enter safe zones there were many times when we hot-footed our way to safety after stirring up trouble, breathing easy only once closing the door. If you haven’t saved for a while, the action can be remarkably tense â€“ there’s often a lot riding on making it back to a save room alive. Musical dolls are the game’s collectable, meanwhile, audible long before entering the rooms in which they’re hidden.
The best use of sound is arguably the clatter of the faceless foe’s footsteps, which is so impeccably implemented that it’s possible to tell not just when an enemy is near, but also which direction they’re heading. Carefully listening to footsteps, often while trying to memorise patrol patterns, forms much of the experience. A lot of patience is required here. A handful of puzzles are sound-based too â€“ one involves ringing bells in the correct order, while a more unique example entails following sounds in an open space cloaked in darkness. Headset users may be at an advantage.
The hotel’s three floors unofficially act as different chapters, as each floor has its obstacles to overcome and self-contained events. Many doors are locked, requiring certain coded keys (and later house plaques) while some rooms can only be accessed by crawling through vents and unlocking doors from the inside. The map is an invaluable tool, showing which rooms have been searched and which remain locked, along with icons that pinpoint areas of interest.
The hotel’s rooms come in various sizes and levels of grandeur; there’s something of a â€˜destroyed beauty’ ethos. Visually it’s on par with 2019’s Blair Witch, sharing some similarities – the environments are reasonably detailed, but some of the finer touches are lost within the darkness and haze. The outdoor locations are the prettiest, with the sun trying its hardest to shine through the forest’s dense canopy. While the enemies are unnerving, mostly due to how rage-filled they are, they only vary cosmetically. By which we mean some wear bowler hats.
Due to focusing on just a scant handful of mechanics (to reiterate, Thomas’ actions are limited to holding his breath and temporary stunning enemies) we were left wanting at times. Simply put, it feels as if at least one vital stealth mechanic is absent. It certainly took us a while to climatize into the game’s way of thinking. Enemies often lurk behind closed doors; instead of being able to peer through keyholes, the only way to tell if a foe is nearby is to carefully listen before opening. Almost every room has a wardrobe, but rather than being able to hide instead, you’re restricted to using the tiny storage closets found within hallways.
Enemies can only be distracted within a few locations too â€“ for the most part, you’re forced to simply stay out of their way, all while making your own mistakes. Thomas doesn’t even have the gall to give a stunned enemy a shove.
Overcoming more the challenging moments can feel rewarding, but usually, there’s frustration before finally emerging victorious. Even hiding in a corner with bated breath isn’t enough to escape the enemy’s grasp. A timed trial-and-error puzzle â€“ which places an item in a random location â€“ also left a sour taste, costing us around 20 minutes of progress. Ups and downs, all around. If Thomas had more fire in his belly, maybe things would be different.
By all means, come and visit Hotel Sker and take in its memorable sights. Just don’t expect your trip to be entirely pleasant. (And not just because one of the former guests has filled their bathtub with human waste.)