A Decent Dungeon Crawler with a Darkly Unique Twist
Traditional fairy tales have shown up in video games more times than I can count. So many times, in fact, that it feels like any way that you could manage to tie a video game and a fairy tale together has already been done. Still, I guess the well of ideas hasn’t completely run dry if Mary Skelter: Nightmares is anything to go by. After all, I can’t say that that I’ve ever heard of a horror-themed, fairy tale-inspired DRPG with copious amounts of anime fan service. Well, not before this game anyway.
Nope, you didn’t hear me wrong. The good folks on over at Idea Factory actually managed to fit all of those things — and more — into a single game. Even more surprising is the fact that it all came together pretty well! Not to say that it didn’t have its problems, because it did here and there, but in the end Mary Skelter: Nightmares is ultimately a very solid (and very weird) dungeon crawler. And if moe-xploration is your thing, then you’ve definitely stumbled across the right game.
Mary Skelter‘s story takes place in a (very) alternate universe, where Tokyo has been swallowed up by a giant, unknown organism simply referred to as “Jail”. Surprisingly, despite its current state, the city’s citizens haven’t died out. Rather than digesting what it eats, Jail seems to simply absorb information, and re-create the inside of itself to mimic parts of what it has consumed. Because of this, Tokyo has been transformed into a dark and hellish landscape, decked out in seemingly ironic fairy tale décor, with a giant, ever-growing tower in the center. And, to top things off, most humans have been rounded up by the Marchens — Jail’s native denizens — imprisoned, and tortured daily as tribute.
Jack and Alice, Mary Skelter‘s leading duo, just so happen to be two of the people who ended up imprisoned. Despite the relentless torture, Jack and Alice stay alive in hopes of one day escaping. And finally, their hoping paid off! After a particularly relentless day of being tortured, the duo find themselves being rescued by a mysterious girl named Red Riding Hood. She states that Alice, along with Red Riding Hood herself is a Blood Maiden — a girl capable of fighting off the Marchens with special powers — and that her help is needed in order to escape from Jail. Also, she rescues Jack too because why not.
Every so often, I come across a game with a story so bizarre that I feel like what I’m saying doesn’t make sense, despite knowing that it does. Mary Skelter is one of those games. But it’s something that I have to compliment it on. Using fairy tale characters as a focus while trying to avoid both complete normalcy and utter obscurity can be difficult. While Mary Skelter does walk the line of obscurity several times, it always manages to pull itself in before things get too out there.
Blood Maiden Voyage
Interesting story aside, Mary Skelter is actually a fairly normal dungeon crawler. Almost normal to the point of being unremarkable, actually. Being a DRPG, most of your time in this game will be spent dungeon crawling within each of the game’s areas. The goal within each area is always the same — to get to the very deepest part, and destroy the core. If you destroy all of the cores, then you’ll finally be able to escape Jail. …At least, that’s what people keep telling you. But hey, you don’t have anything else to do. You might as well do that!
Aside from your typical dungeon crawling shenanigans (you know, walking around a lot), each area also has plenty of gimmicks — such as timed doors and traps — most of which you can’t normally bypass. Fortunately, you have Blood Abilities at your disposal! Blood Abilities are unique skills that each Blood Maiden possesses that have varying effects on the field — such as Sleeping Beauty’s bow, or Cinderella’s ability to increase movement speed. While many Blood Abilities typically have a level in which they’re “featured”, Mary Skelter does a good job of making sure that they’re never “one-and-done”. Further areas will have you using multiple Blood Abilities, and previously cleared areas occasionally hold secrets that you can only accesses after acquiring the correct Blood Ability as well.
I’d also like to take a moment to talk about Mary Skelter‘s aesthetics. Primarily the fact that they’re probably some of the best that I’ve ever seen within a DRPG. Idea Factory must have surely known how popular the whole horror + fairy tale thing was, and had no qualms capitalizing on it. Quite well, I might add. Mary Skelter does an excellent job of transforming your favorite childhood bedtime stories into something dark, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
On the whole, Mary Skelter does just fine with its dungeon crawling. In fact, I only have one bad thing to say about it. It’s kind of a big one, though. Literally. As in the dungeons are too big. I’ve played a good number of DRPGs in my day. Having said that, I don’t think that I’ve ever encountered a game that throws as many humongous dungeons at players as Mary Skelter does. I understand that some people like big dungeons. To me, however, it felt unnecessary. Most of the “extra” portions contain nothing more than dead ends. Often times, these dead ends will contain loot but, unfortunately, it usually isn’t loot worth going out of your way for. I’ve never been able to get behind needlessly long dungeons before. I’m certainly not going to now.
Like its dungeon crawling, Mary Skelter‘s turn-based combat is also easy to pick up on. Fights take place in a traditional turn-based manner, with turn order being based on how high each character’s AGI stat is. Players are able to assemble a party of up to five active Blood Maidens at once, and can position them in either the front or the back row depending on how each character fights. Every Blood Maiden can also make use of one of five different classes. Each Blood Maiden has her own set of classes (with little overlap), so character versatility doesn’t waver too much. Still the classes teach new skills, and allow players to slightly adjust each character’s fighting styles.
Some of you might have noticed something strange by now. I’ve gone on and on about Blood Maidens, but wasn’t there a male protagonist named Jack? What happened to him? Well, it turns out Jack is special. Namely due to the fact that he can’t actually fight. Why? Well, you’ll have to play the game to find that out. What I will tell you however is that, despite not fighting, he still participates in battle. In the beginning, Jack has limited use. He’s only able to take a single hit for a Blood Maiden (passing out afterwards), and is also the only one who can use items.
As story progresses however, Jack becomes much more useful. As the Blood Maidens fight, they get Marchen Blood on them. Once they get enough blood on them (indicated by their Blood Meter), they’ll automatically go into Blood Massacre Mode. During Blood Massacre, a Blood Maiden become stronger, and can use a few special attacks. Pretty neat, huh? Well, not always. Sometimes, a Blood Maiden will instead go into Blood Skelter. Like with Blood Massacre, Blood Skelter makes your characters stronger. Unfortunately, you also lose complete control over them. Generally, this results in your party killing itself. So, how do you avoid that? You use Jack’s Mary Gun to cover the Blood Maidens in Jack’s own blood! Yes, seriously!
Due to spoiler-y reasons, Jack’s blood has the ability to nullify Blood Skelter. That doesn’t mean that you can just use the Mary Gun as often as you’d like, however! Jack, being the human that he is, does not have an infinite supply of blood. He’s also anemic (I wonder why?). Because of this, repeated use of the Mary Gun will cause Jack to faint (as will guarding a Blood Maiden). And when Jack’s out, he’s out for a while. Because of this, it’s important to plan ahead.
Honestly, the Mary Gun — and Jack in general — takes some getting used to. I would always use it too soon or too late at first. But I really started to appreciate it after a while. Mary Skelter‘s battles start to get monotonous pretty quickly. While each area’s enemies are visually appealing, there aren’t to many of them. The game seems to be okay with pumping out several variants of each enemy, instead of creating entirely new ones. I get that it might be easier from a developer’s standpoint, but it also means that there isn’t too much for the player to experience in terms of combat diversity. You can familiarize yourself with new enemies so quickly, that you’ll find yourself hitting that Auto-Battle button before long. The Blood mechanics and Mary Gun force players to make sure that they’re paying at least a little attention to what’s going on.
Finally, there are the Nightmares — the big bad bosses of each area. Boy, are these guys trouble. Instead of standing in place like most area bosses, Nightmares are active. They’ll periodically skulk around each area, giving chase to the player (known as a “Murder Hunt”) should you happen to get too close. You can fight the Nightmares if you’d like, but it won’t do much good. You can’t actually kill them until you’ve destroyed the core. Should you stand your ground during Murder Hunt, the best that you’ll be able to do is stun the boss. Murder Hunt has the potential to get annoying, but it never reaches that level. It happens just infrequently enough that you forget about it. And, once it does happen, it instills a perfect sense of urgency into the player.
You Bleeding Heart, You
Mary Skelter is a strange, strange game. It manages to take dungeon crawling, fairy tales, horror, and anime fan service — things that you normally don’t see paired together — and blend them all up into one nice, neat, little game. Well, “nice” might be the right world. Jail is actually a pretty mean place. But the game certainly is neat! No, this game isn’t perfect. Its dungeons are a bit long, and normal encounters border on bland, Aside from that, though, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a darkly fun DRPG with excellent visuals, and a game that any dungeon crawling fan should have on their radar.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Vita (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Idea Factory International ; Developer: Idea Factory International ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 19, 2017 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Mary Skelter: Nightmares given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher