I’ve got to say, 2017 has been quite the banner year for games, and we’ve still got a little over three months to go. In addition to a number of titles that could very well go down in the history books as all-time greats, I can’t count the number of pleasant surprises I’ve had while reviewing games this year. It’s really nice to be proven wrong when your expectations are low! The pleasant surprises continue this week with the latest from Compile Heart, a developer whose work I haven’t historically held in the highest regard. And looking at the website for Mary Skelter: Nightmares, that familiar feeling of dread started to creep up on me – a cast of 80 percent girls with mysterious powers that cause their clothes to occasionally rip right off? Here we go again, I thought. But, happily, I can report that Mary Skelter subverts some of the uglier trends that usually fuel pulpy JRPGs like this one. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but then again, it wasn’t striving to be one. As pulpy entertainment goes, it’s quite a lot of fun.
The premise of Mary Skelter is a good one, which was my first surprise. An unnamed city in Tokyo has become a crater in the ground, swallowed up by a mysterious living prison known only as the Jail. The human occupants are now the victims of torture at the hands of the Marchens, mysterious creatures that seem to exist only for the purpose of spreading misery. A pair of these humans, Jack and Alice, are rescued by a “Blood Maiden” named Red Riding Hood one day, and from there join the “Dawn Resistance,” a group of people dedicated to climbing the Tower in the center of the Jail and escaping to the surface. To do this, they’ll need to make use of the other Blood Maidens’ powers, and like Jack, Alice, and Red Riding Hood, these ladies borrow their names from popular fairy tale characters (Princess Kaguya, Thumbelina, Sleeping Beauty, and so on).
The characters themselves are not very interesting, being generally made up of the same tired archetypes you see time and time again in these games. I’m not sure when “sleepy” became a personality type outside of the Seven Dwarfs, but I’d love for it to stop being a thing. Oh, and can you guess which one is sleepy all the time? If you guessed “Sleeping Beauty,” give yourself a pat on the back for realizing the painfully obvious. Still, in spite of their shallowness, the characters have enough spunk and humor to drive the darker-than-expected, almost Lovecraftian, plot forward. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to get involved in the story at all, much less as much as I did. It’s a credit to the truly freaky, eldritch world dreamed up by the developers, full of bizarre creatures, a cult-like religion and “allies” who don’t seem entirely trustworthy. That’s not to say I loved every aspect of the narrative – it sometimes tries a little too hard and becomes laughable or just plain irritating in the process – but overall, I had a great time following along.
Part of the reason the narrative can seem like it’s trying way too hard is because, well, the gameplay is pretty much a standard dungeon crawler with spooky window dressing. There’s almost nothing here we haven’t seen before in other RPGs, from the Etrian Odyssey FOE-like (field-on-enemy) Nightmares to the accumulation of “corruption” in characters with special powers. The implementation of the latter example is the most eye-rollingly “edgy” part of the whole game, which means it naturally serves as its namesake: the Blood Maidens sometimes go into uncontrollable “Skelter” mode after taking too much punishment (what would be called the “Confused” or “Berserk” status effect in a normal RPG). Maidens in Skelter mode have their clothes shredded off (sigh) and force Jack to spray them with blood to cure them – blood drawn directly from his own arm to his “Mary Gun.” Yeah, just calling it by a different name and coming up with a disgusting narrative device doesn’t make it any cooler, guys.
But again, Mary Skelter: Nightmares does enough right with its main dungeon crawler conceit – even none of it is really new – to make for a really enjoyable and fun adventure. The gals in your party are highly customizable with jobs, weapons and skills, something you must absolutely take advantage of if you’re hoping to have a chance of winning in either of the two higher difficulties (the lowest one makes the battles more perfunctory, allowing players to enjoy the story without worrying too much about all the little strategic details). The map designs and included gimmicks are pretty fun, too, with little puzzles spread throughout to keep things from getting too dull. And even if the Nightmares are basically just freakier-looking versions of FOEs, that didn’t keep me from enjoying the palpable tension created during a “Murder Hunt” when one sees you; it sends the area into darkness, ridding you of your precious mini-map and quickly creeping up behind you to trigger an unwinnable battle from which escape is your best case scenario.
Even if I haven’t been the biggest fan of Compile Heart’s games in the past, it’s been hard for me to deny the appeal of their artwork, which is really well done but not always put to the best use due to lower production values. Here, everything comes together really well, from the character portraits to the monsters in the first-person battle system to the truly creepy decor of the dungeons. The soundtrack is pretty great, too, with quite a few toe-tapping tracks. (I especially like the beat of “Distorted Reality” and the Persona-esque funk of “SKIP.”)
Mary Skelter Nightmares Review
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a surprisingly effective little dungeon crawler. I enjoyed its creepy, Lovecraftian world way more than I ever expected to, even if the characters lack depth and the lore can get a little goofy in its race to be dark and edgy. The actual dungeon crawling here may not have any real ideas of its own, but it pulls in a lot of the best stuff from other games (like the FOEs from Etrian Odyssey) to create a tasty cocktail of well-worn mechanics. If you’re looking for an RPG to celebrate the upcoming Halloween season, there are far worse options than Mary Skelter.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.