News that the Maid of Sker was receiving a next-gen update provided both an opportunity to go back and replay one of my favourite Wales Interactive games, and review it for the site. I fear a lot of people may have dismissed it as yet another barely interactive, first-person scare-fest, whereas Maid of Sker is actually an indie survival-horror experience punching well above its weight.
With a narrative based (very loosely) on the written work of R. D. Blackmore, you take control of young composer Thomas Evans who has just arrived on the outskirts of the Sker Hotel in search of his lover Elisabeth Williams. She returned to the family hotel to help her father revive the struggling business but soon sent Thomas a mysterious letter and her mother’s musical locket, tasking him with composing a counter-melody to its tune and returning to her as soon as possible.
Unsurprisingly, all is not as it first seems. After a short, peaceful stroll through the surrounding woods, you find yourself trapped in the dark, bloodstained halls of the Sker Hotel. What follows is a tense 5ish-hour adventure into the bowels of the hotel, through the surrounding grounds, upwards towards the attic, and back into the depths.
Thomas must collect both several music cylinders and – if you keep your eyes open – the counter-music sheets from other composers drawn to the hotel before the madness overtook everyone. For players that explore thoroughly, it’s not a particularly novel horror tale, but the numerous phonograph recordings and diary entries flesh out the history of the location, the family’s sordid history, and the reason for the madness that has consumed the staff.
When it comes to gameplay, Maid of Sker offers a ton of accessibility, despite the nature of the genre and a manual save system. The control scheme is simple, puzzles straightforward, the stealth system forgiving (most of the time), and there are several difficulty levels. Safe mode removes enemies – with the exception of the final, puzzle-based boss. Normal mode feels balanced, with numerous enemies and scarce supplies (while Easy is the same but you can take more chances). For masochists, there’s the Hard mode with tougher enemies, which are introduced earlier, and a limit of ten saves.
Regardless of your chosen difficulty, Maid of Sker focusses on its unfolding narrative and ensures there are minimal roadblocks that could jeopardize the pacing. As you explore, the map automatically updates, highlighting important objects like save rooms, locked doors, unexplored areas, puzzle-related items, and documents. Given the brief conversations with Elizabeth provide only broad goals, it serves to keep the player informed and on track.
Maid of Sker strikes a good balance of gameplay mechanics during its short runtime. You’ll explore desolate locations, gathering notes and observing gruesome rituals from afar; you’ll sneak past the deranged staff while collecting key items to progress; you’ll flee from scripted encounters and scramble to escape traps. It’s a well-paced blend of exploration, puzzling, stealth, and scares.
When enemies appear – often in groups of three or more as you progress – stealth still follows some basic rules that’ll get you through unscathed. Move while crouched, don’t bump into furniture, hold your breath in dusty or smokey areas, and don’t let an enemy walk into you while you’re distracted watching another! It’s tense but methodical, and there are only one or two scripted sections that could have used some better signposting to ensure the player knows where to go.
That said, some stealth sections feel a tad contrived. A common example is a mechanism that requires you to flick a breaker, push the button once, flick another breaker, push the button again, etc. It also feels like the inventory system could have been fleshed out, maybe with an item limit that would force you to manage puzzle, healing, and charges for the singular “weapon” that can temporarily stun foes?
Part of the stress of navigating the hotel comes from it’s clear Resident Evil-inspired layout. The basic hotel floorplan (multiple floors with east and west wings), the key hunts, the shortcuts back to carefully placed save rooms (with their own relaxing melody); it all feels comfortably familiar yet fresh. That said, the level design, limited number of usable items you find, and the manual save system only feel truly utilized in the second half of the game (and if you choose to backtrack before the finale for collectibles).
At this point, it’s worth briefly discussing the new Challenge mode. You start in the attic and descend along a labyrinthine path through the hotel to escape. Regardless of the challenge selected – which introduces variables like only using the axe, poor lighting, or tougher enemies – it can be a slow, methodical slaughter through the new enemy types – teleporting witches the worst by far – or a non-stop manic firefight if you’re chasing an A-grade score. It’s a quirky addition that excites me more for the prospect of future survival-horror games from Wales Interactive, rather than the mode itself.
The upgraded visuals – and it was already a beautiful game – coupled with smoother performance is much appreciated. Similarly, the weapon and impact animations in the challenge mode feel as polished as the rest of the experience. However, Maid of Sker’s soundscape remains the most impressive component of the presentation and carries the experience. There’s the haunting music, unsettling ambient sounds, and distant footsteps to generate tension but it also serves the gameplay. Few games have such clear spatial audio that you can easily approximate the location and distance of your foes. It’s not strictly necessary to complete the game, but anyone with hearing difficulties might struggle during certain encounters due to a lack of alternative visual indicators.
If you missed it the first time, or are looking for an excuse to return, this free next-gen update to Maid of Sker makes for a compelling package at an indie price point. Between the enhanced original and the new weapon-based challenge mode, Wales Interactive has a solid foundation that they could use to create a survival-horror experience akin to the wildly successful first-person Resident Evil entries. Not only did I enjoy my return to the Sker Hotel, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what the team has planned next.
Maid of Sker Enhanced (Xbox Series S) ReviewMaid of Sker Enhanced (Xbox Series S) Review
Story7/10 GoodIt's not the most novel or surprising horror tale, but I enjoyed uncovering the sordid history of the Sker Hotel.
Gameplay7/10 GoodIt does a little of everything well - exploration, puzzling, stealth, and scripted scares - though some systems feel like they could have been fleshed out.
Visuals8/10 Very GoodThe photorealistic visuals and oppressive atmosphere make for an immersive experience, especially now that it's running smoother than ever.
Audio9/10 AmazingEasily one of the best uses of directional audio for both gameplay and to enhance the atmosphere.
- Well-paced blend of exploration, puzzling, stealth, and scares
- Incredible use of directional audio for both atmosphere and gameplay
- Immersive photorealistic visuals and immersive atmosphere, now running smoother than ever
- Lack of signposting during some scripted encounters
- Inventory and item management could have been more fleshed out