I remember when Mary Skelter: Nightmares was first announced. It was touted as Compile Heart’s attempt at a horror dungeon crawler with cute girls at the forefront. While it seemed enticing, after the mediocre MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death I irked on the side of caution before getting too hyped up. Mary Skelter is finally out and not only were my fears baseless but the game easily falls among the best in its genre.
Despite what its name may suggest in Mary Skelter you play as Jack and Alice, and not the eponymous Mary. If the names weren’t a dead giveaway, by the time you are introduced to Red Riding Hood it becomes pretty obvious that the whole world is inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Everything from the character, to the grotesque enemies to the noteworthy level design, has an air of fairy tales, albeit a more grotesque version of them.
After living all their lives in a prison where they were tortured daily by the monstrous Marchens, our duo is saved thanks to Red Riding Hood. She has come in order to recruit Alice who possesses the power of a Blood Maiden – the only type of people who can kill Marchens. You soon meet up with the likes of Thumbelina, Cinderella, Snow White and many others, and thanks to Jack’s ability you all start your offensive against the Jail in search of a way out.
For a first-person dungeon crawler, Mary Skelter has a surprisingly solid plot. It is full of twists and turns and by the time I finished the prologue I was already hooked.
Where many games of this genre would just slap you with a generic fantasy or sci-fi setting and send you off into the world to explore and conquer it with a ragtag group of replaceable cutouts, here characters have, you know, actual character. As you build up your relationship with them and as the story unfolds you slowly uncover their motivations, backstories, and even aspirations. What’s even more surprising is the fact that our protagonist Jack is not just a blank slate on which the players can project, but instead even he has a personality. While not an apt fighter like the rest, he does everything in his power to help his friends when they go off on their dangerous missions.
At a glimpse, this might seem to play like your typical dungeon crawler with random battles but scratch the surface just a bit and you will be rewarded with a unique yet accessible battle system. While your heroines have the standard options to attack, defend or cast spells, Jack serves as a much-needed tactical edge in battles. He has a regular turn order but unlike everyone else, he cannot attack or even be targeted by the enemy. He can, however, choose to jump in and guard one of the Blood maidens, effectively soaking up all damage while risking the possibility to be knocked out for a few rounds. He is also the only character able to use items, which is a must during the challenging boss battles.
Jack also ties into the games Blood Splatter system. As girls kill and overkill enemies, the blood from fallen Marchens splatters all over them and once they soak up enough they enter a super-powered state called Blood Skelter. While it gives you a nice advantage in battles, not everything is that simple. As girls receive damage their blood will corrupt, slowly risking having them enter Massacre Mode turning them into a frenzied monster which attacks friend and foe alike.
The game gives you two options to balance this out. The first is letting Jack use his Mary Gun and shoot a girl on his turn, effectively purifying her blood at the cost of his. Another way is to have another girl lick off the blood of her ally, giving her various buffs in the process. All these options make for surprisingly strategic battles which are also engaging.
Dungeon crawlers live and die by how frequent and repetitive the battles become. Thankfully Mary Skelter lets you move a generous amount before sending you into random battles. It’s a perfect balance of letting you explore and map out the dungeon while keeping your team from being too under leveled.
Once you are sufficiently leveled, you can quickly plow through all the easier fights using the auto-battle feature. Pressing the square button will activate the auto-battle mode, which you can cancel out of at any time, while holding the R button skips all battle animations, making for brief fights.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares has amazing level design. Compile Heart has gone a long way since MeiQ’s haphazardly crafted mazes. The levels are enormous and it can take hours to explore every nook and cranny of one. However, dungeons never feel random and there is a lot of variety from different traps waiting to spring at a moment’s notice, too tight ropes, jump pads, levers, buttons, to secret passages that require your use of special abilities to open up, as well as puzzles that force you to think things through before proceeding.
Each of the heroines has her own skill which proves to be indispensable. While Alice can place save and transfer points making the gigantic levels more bearable, Red Riding Hood can use her scissors to cut objects and open up new paths. Sleeping Beat can fire arrows in order to press buttons and Snowwhite can place powerful explosives to open up new areas.
However, what truly sets apart Mary Skelter from countless other dungeon crawlers out there are the so-called Nightmares that roam the dungeons. These monstrosities can be best described as Death from Persona. They move in real-time and once they spot you your best bet is to run as fast as possible.
What makes nightmares even more terrifying is the fact that once it starts a murder hunt the everything becomes much darker and you lose access to your minimap, forcing you to run head first into twisting corridors which might or might not finish in a dead end.
Thankfully Nightmares don’t exactly roam dungeons, but instead, show up after some time. So, if you manage to escape one you don’t have to worry about having to deal with it again for a few minutes. Still, there is always a lingering fear in the back of your mind, slowly growing with each consecutive growl in the background.
While games for the Vita are becoming a rarity nowadays, it’s great that Mary Skelter: Nightmares opted for this platform. Grabbing a 30 minute here and there while commuting made for a perfect experience. Add the fact that you almost always have the option to save and return to your base at your disposal, you won’t have to worry about losing hours of playtime if you play smart.
The game looks gorgeous on the Vita. Dungeons are detailed and much livelier than in other games in its genre. There are quite a few dynamic elements from sliding graves, to mysterious eyes and beating hearts.
Even the 2D artwork is top notch and it’s hard to get used to how polished everything looks. Characters blink, their hair flutters and they even have full lip-synching. Of course, there are a bit more suggestive segments which have you “Purging to corruption” from the girls, but these are surprisingly kept to a minimum.
As usual, the game offers both English and Japanese. However, if you opt to stick with English you will miss out on quite a bit dialog since not everything is voiced.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is one of the very best dungeon crawlers I played to date. From its well-crafted story, interesting characters and captivating atmosphere, to its unique gameplay which doesn’t become stale even after hours of dungeon crawling, there is so much to like about the game. Compile Heart has truly made it a long way since MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death and we are excited to see what they have next in store.