It’s not terribly surprising that the October Humble Choice included a quirky indie horror game (in fact, it had two!), and yet again, despite being a giant chicken, I have volunteered to check out Maid of Sker for UnwiseOwl’s group review. Maid of Sker has a regular price of $24.99, a play time of around 5 hours, and the only DLC available is the soundtrack which can be purchased for an additional $4.99.
I am now, and will likely forever be, looking for the perfect horror game for people who are too afraid of their own shadow to play horror games. The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, when horror games are very good, they also tend to be very scary, as they probably should be. However, the flip side of this is that games that want to be horror without being terrifying really need to have something else to hold the player’s interest throughout. While I think Maid of Sker has a lot going for it, it misses the mark for me in both being a little too damn creepy for my taste, and with the story being drip fed oh-so-slowly to prolong the tension.
I considered choosing the “Safe” difficulty, but eventually settled on “Easy”, but I am must report that I, personally, did not have a relaxed playing experience. I also didn’t find any ammunition at all (nor did I find a weapon), and I would not call one single health item “plentiful”. However, in the interest of full disclosure, during the majority of my playtime I also had no use for either, as I was just creeping around an old hotel touching stuff.
You play as Thomas, who receives a letter from his intended that she is stuck at her family’s hotel and that weird things have started to happen. Since this story takes place just before the turn of the century – that’s the 20th century, not the 21st – you hop the next train to see her. You arrive at the hotel, and everything seems pretty much abandoned. The atmosphere is rich pretty much from the start, but navigating everything is torturously slow, and that’s before you start sneaking around. You’ll be spending the majority of the game sneaking around, just to be clear.
When you finally make your way inside, a telephone device begins ringing. On the other end is your beloved, who has barricaded herself in the attic. She tells you that her father and uncle have been corrupted by the darkness of the hotel, and tasks you with finding some musical cylinders, which all need to be played at once to break the curse. All is appropriately creepy and gothic.
As fantastic as the atmosphere and – dear god – the sound design are, I found the game play extremely lacking. You wander around the hotel, and although you’ve just been warned about being quiet, the game seems to want you to touch absolutely everything that makes noise. No, I do not want to touch that piano. No, I don’t want to pick up that music box. No, I do not want to ring that bell on the desk. I am supposed to be being silent.
Even the save points make noise! Touching the phonographs saves the game and – at least the first time for each – you are rewarded with a recording that gives you a snippet the family’s history. The save points are frequent enough that I only slightly resented not being able to save anywhere, and some of the recordings they contained made me wish for a very big club with which to take out these awful men rather than just sneaking around hiding from them.
I gave it about an hour, but for me, Maid of Sker was the worst of both worlds for me. It was very successful at ratcheting up my anxiety, which means it was doing that part of its job. But every time my objectives screen updated, I found myself thinking “No, no, I would not like to do that. I would like to get on the next train home, please. Or at the very least, let me run right up to the attic, not-so-bravely rescue my love from the attic, and get on the next train with her. Anything, really, but go down the rickety bloody elevator.” I might have been able to coast on adrenaline if there was less creepy empty areas you needed to navigate and either the story was coming faster or there were more notes and other collectibles to hunt for, but I was somehow simultaneously terrified and bored. Not a compelling combination.
I would also guess that for most people who like survival horror, this one would also miss the mark, except I would venture to guess they would argue it’s not scary enough. The game is slow paced, the stealth mechanics border on nonsensical, and even the store page tells you that the only ability you’ll get to deal with the enemies is a defensive one. I’d be surprised if this is the game that makes anyone choose to grab this month’s Humble Choice, and I would hazard that it would only appeal to a very very small subset of gamers.