An effectively eerie backdrop is undone slightly by frustrating stealth in this enjoyable indie horror game.
There's a banner hanging above the grand staircase. The light from the glass-topped domed ceiling pulls your eyes to it the moment you step into the stately entryway - "GRAND RE-OPENING - 30th October 1897" it declares in neat print - yet the colourful bunting adorning the vestibule is tattered and torn in places, and the wooden floor is scuffed and stained. The muted light - derived chiefly, if not quite exclusively, from candlelight - is soft and delicate, but you'll learn the hard way that it conceals a lot, too. Like the pool of blood at the bottom of the stairway. Like the Quiet Ones who skulk in the shadows.
You begin to wonder how anyone could've thought Sker - a Welsh word pronounced "scare" but one that has no literal translation, I don't think? - Hotel was fit for anything, let alone a grand re-opening. It's dusty and dirty, and many of its rooms are stacked with unopened crates and boxes. Every mirror in the hotel is fractured and splintered. Later, when you explore the upper floors and stumble upon horrifying contraptions that have surely been yanked from the imagination of HH Holmes and his infamous Murder Castle, you'll realise the plans to open this place weren't "grand" at all. Later still, when the banner lies in ribbons on the floor of the lobby as the heavy footfalls of blind men - or are they monsters? - stomp aimlessly from one side of the room, ears pricked for the slightest creak that'll give away your position, you'll be left wondering how on earth you can survive this.
It's fitting that a story of sirens and shipwrecks is set on the coast of Wales, the Land of Song. Sker Hotel is filled with evocative images of life at sea, its numerous rooms stuffed with nautical trinkets and decorations. The theme is further enforced when you stumble into the hotel's labyrinthine basement and catch sight of the black, unblinking glare of the portholes studded across the walls. In other rooms, you might discover a deep-sea divers' helmet or find an antique harpoon. And every now and then in your travels, you'll happen across a strange chair with manacles, and gramophone trumpets positioned just-so on either side of the headrest. You'll try not to get too close to those.
Curiously, indie horror Maid of Sker doesn't start out quite as well as it ends. At first, it very much feels like a death simulator that chains stealth sequence after stealth sequence, requiring the protagonist Thomas Evans to forever creep about the place like he's permanently put his back out. While the game never quite liberates you from its endless stealth sequences, they do become more tolerable, but I wonder how many players will tap out of the adventure before they start to enjoy the horror's unsettling ambience and unusual tale.
The issues are compounded further by the game's tight environments. Admittedly and undoubtedly atmospheric, the claustrophobic corridors make the stealth mechanic all the more tedious, and it's typically luck, not skill, that sees you escape an encounter unscathed. In some instances, the AI of the Quiet Ones - the shuffling old duffers that wander throughout Sker and its grounds - seems acutely omnipotent. In others, it feels grossly ineffectual. Sometimes an old chap in a flat cap will pass by and be none the wiser to your proximity. Other times, though - sometimes when you're even further away, perhaps, or using one of two defensive options available to you, which is holding your breath - they seem to spot you from across the room, even though they're purportedly blind. It makes for an imbalanced, frustrating affair. Admittedly, it'll keep you on your toes.
The Maid of Sker was a three-part novel written by Laura Doone author RD Blackmore back in the late 1800s. The game draws liberally from this tale, as well as the Welsh folklore spun around the real-life Sker House in Bridgend, the same South Wales town in which developer Wales Interactive currently resides. You've been summoned to this place by your sweetheart, Elizabeth, who's primed to replace her mother as Sker's new "singing sensation", colloquially known as the eponymous Maid of Sker. Despite singing fluently in the Welsh language, Elizabeth speaks with an English accent - something that jarred each and every time she spoke - and I was never quite convinced by the Olde English vocabulary, either. That said, the informative gramophones dotted strategically throughout the grounds flesh out the story behind Lizzy's fortunes and her life with her peculiar family (and handily double-up as your old-school manual save points, too).
I also found it challenging to connect with Thomas. He's a mute, emotionless lump who doesn't have the sense to lift a knee to climb over a two-inch-high gravestone or grab one of the dozens of lanterns dotted around the place despite the shadowy environs, and his lack of sense and manoeuvrability is particularly striking early game when you're lost in the hotel's grounds.
It becomes less egregious by the time you make it into the hotel itself, but while Elizabeth is fully-voiced and well-rounded, I'm perplexed why there's no dialogue for Tom, either. His inability/unwillingness to talk, therefore, renders him frustratingly unsympathetic. I enjoy the steely strength of mute protagonists most of the time and was grateful we could choose from a selection of silent responses for Tom, but you never hear him assure Elizabeth, for example, or exclaim disbelief at the denizens stumbling around in front of his eyes. It robs you of the chance to warm to Thomas or care about his plight, and if he doesn't audibly show concern for Elizabeth, why should you?
Unusually for me, the more I played the more I began to enjoy the adventure. While there's a lot to be aggrieved by - not least the agonising chase sequences that'll commence when you open up the hotel's top floor - I found Sker an enticing place to explore. And though there's a fair bit of backtracking, the hotel is a pretty confined space, so returning to unlock doors you tip-toed past just a few hours ago falls on just the right side of frustrating.
There are also several fairly opaque puzzles. I can't be certain I didn't miss an explanatory note someplace (the stats screen at the end told me I'd missed three at the end of my playthrough), but I ended up having to brute-force my way through a couple of them. This included one particularly perplexing dilemma that had me yanking beer taps at random in the hope of opening up a new progression path. It's to the developer's credit that the puzzles felt rewarding and not churlish, however, and I particularly enjoyed the audio puzzle that followed a surprisingly effective jump-scare with a jack-in-the-box. I'll admit it took me longer than it should have - the score and sound effects are excellent, but feel a little imbalanced and imprecise at times - but popping on headphones helped orientate me.
In truth, there's little here that innovates or improves on a well-worn formula, and in many ways, Maid of Sker is a by-rote indie horror that does little to surprise the player or push the genre forward. That said, while I can't pretend I enjoyed the agonising stealth and combat mechanics, I can't deny that despite its flaws, I enjoyed exploring Sker Hotel and uncovering its intriguing tale.