Mary Skelter: Nightmare
Developer: Idea Factory/Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Available on: Playstation Vita (reviewed), Playstation TV
Price: $29.99 USD
For fans of: Light-hearted dungeon crawlers, JRPGs
Brad: Hey Kayla, I got a game from Idea Factory that needs reviewing. It’s a dungeon crawler.
Me: (Internally screaming with excitement)
Me: Sure, I got some time.
That’s more or less how the conversation went, and thus, I was summoned here to review Mary Skelter: Nightmares. My name is Kayla, but some of you may know me as @Beltravi on both Twitter, WordPress, and virtually every console out there. I played the game on ‘Normal’, but two other modes are available: ‘Dream’ (Easy) and ‘Horror’ (Hard).
Mary Skelter: Nightmares takes place in a world where one of Japan’s cities disappeared from the surface. Where the city once stood, a massive crater now exists; one that reaches deep within the Earth itself with a massive tower-like construct jutting from the bottom. The construct, similar to a living organism, has dominated the remains of the city and is known by the surviving humans as ‘The Jail’. Sunlight is a myth, and all that the people can see is ‘The Moon’, an orb in the sky that changes colors based on the ‘mood’ of the Jail. The Jail’s roots spread throughout the city remnants, and wherever the roots touched, beings known as ‘marchen’ form, imitating whatever was near it. Every enemy in the game, whether the lowest trash mob or one of the unstoppable Nightmares, resembles something, ranging from shoes to chairs to locks to mannequins and more.
The humans that thrive in the Jail have never been able to break through the surface and climb out of the crater. Enough time has passed that none remember the name of the city, other than ‘Jail’. Remnants of the ‘old world’, such as magazines, cosmetics, and sweets, exist as rare and exotic pleasures. Dominated by the marchen, the humans are captured and imprisoned, forced to be tortured to some unknown purpose, ranging from vicious beatings just short of death; endless terror inflicted to force the humans to scream endlessly; or… licking the Jail walls?
Well okay then. That’s a new one, even for me.
A sect of humans managed to escape and took over a district in the city. Calling themselves the Dawn Liberation Front, they have made their home in the aptly-named ‘Liberation District’. Also situated in the Liberation District is the Order of the Sun, a religious sect that follows the leadership of the Lady Oohime and the strict Hitsuka, who promises to guide their followers to the surface to gaze upon the mystical sun. While the Dawn leans more towards science, and the Order more towards faith, the two co-exist, relying on one another to survive. The Dawn uses young women with special powers to battle the marchen. Called ‘Blood Maidens’, the girls in question risk life, limb, and sanity in pursuit of the ultimate goal of the Dawn: Escape the Jail.
Our heroes, Jack and Alice, start off the game as prisoners of the Jail when a mysterious girl breaks into the prison cells and abducts Alice. Jack follows along, while their neighbors flee the Jail as well. This girl introduces herself as Red Riding Hood, the first of the Blood Maidens, and reveals Alice as a Blood Maiden. From here, the story begins, and what a story it is.
A good story will always leave me hooked, and Mary Skelter: Nightmares certainly delivered. There was no black and white in this game. Every single character had their own agenda. Every character had selfish and selfless motives. As outsiders new to the Dawn, Jack and Alice question the methods of the organization and its leadership. In later chapters, Alice becomes more resigned to her position of a Blood Maiden, and this position of questioning is taken over by Gretel, making the latter as much of a heroine as Alice, if not more so. In the Dawn’s quest to escape the Jail, the girls start to uncover more information about the Jail itself, as well as the past of the Dawn, that leads them to question the motives of the world. The nature of the Jail itself is questioned, as the protagonists must slowly learn the nature of the monstrous living organism and why it exists.
Jack himself served a unique role to the story, with unique abilities, and also was my first real disappointment in the game. Jack’s blood possesses the rare quality of purging Blood Maidens of corruption caused by too much exposure to marchen blood. Without Jack, the Maidens are subjected to falling into a berserking state, called Blood Skelter, where they attack friend and foe without mercy until stopped.. by any means necessary. Thanks to Jack, the Blood Maidens can safely engage the marchens. Jack, however, is unable to use the same weapons as the Blood Maidens. Forced into a sideline position during combat, Jack is often frustrated, upset about his inability to aid his friends in battle. To this extent, Jack also has more time to observe and ponder their actions, noticing things that others may not. This part, I enjoyed, as it made Jack feel like a believable and sympathetic character. But that’s not the part that disappointed me.
As far as I know, the game never truly explains why Jack is so different, and I was pretty thorough about my notes, memos, and cutscenes. There isn’t even a blanket excuse of ‘Because you’re a boy, and they’re girls’. Now, I still have some dungeon maps to finish exploring, as well as the post-game Underground Cavern to dig into, but it felt like a bit of a letdown to spend the game hearing the other characters wax on and on about how nothing could have moved forward with Jack, hearing hints that they didn’t anticipate him, how they had never seen a ‘Blood Youth’ before, hear shock and surprise about how he can understand the Jail, only for that to be left hanging at the ending. Maybe this will change when I finish the Underground Cavern, but for the time being, Jack remains the biggest mystery of the game. Some part of his origin was explained, but only in the same blanket explanation that applied to the girls as well. Speaking of the girls…
What was a pleasant surprise was how the girls responded differently to the same situations. None of the girls felt like eye-candy or cookie-cutter placeholders. Some, like Red Riding Hood, were adamantly in denial. Some, like Sleeping Beauty, were far more neutral. Others, like Snow White and Kaguya, were reluctant to speak up. In total, there were ten Blood Maidens — nine required for the story, one bonus — and each girl has a unique personality, which was rather refreshing compared to how interchangeable the girls were in battle.
There are five trees in all, each with five specs: a tank-like tree for Alice and Cinderella; a ranged/archer tree that consisted of Sleeping Beauty and Kaguya; a spellcaster tree for Thumbelina and Hameln; a support caster tree over Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel; and finally, a general-support/status-heavy tree that Gretel and Snow White hung out under. There was great variety, but honestly, I didn’t feel much of a need to change out specs. In order to change specs, you have to use Job Rights, which are gained every tenth level up. The first thing I did was change Alice to Paladin to absorb damage, and that was the only change I found necessary. Even then, I didn’t find it necessary to have Alice in my party unless I was about to engage a boss. Half the time I forgot who was in my party, because honestly, there was very little reason in Normal mode to switch them out for the trash mobs around the dungeon maps.
And in that sense, the curve from trash mobs to the boss was pretty high. I could be skating through the hardest trash mobs with little difficulty and still have a game over on the boss within the first couple of minutes. The battles did, however, get rather repetitive. Probably 70% of my trash mobs were slain by the same combo: Sleeping Beauty’s Amber Red, followed by Thumbelina’s Rising Flame. Sometimes a mob might last longer than that, in which case the other members of my team mopped them up. Boss fights consisted of having different characters use different elemental attacks until I found the weakness, then I spammed that element, or whatever dealt the highest damage, over and over again, with the goal of creating blood splatters to send some of my girls into their powered-up modes (called Blood Massacre) for higher damage. Poor Jack would do nothing but toss healing items and an elemental damage item if I was bored, or frantically attempt to cure Maidens of corruption before one of them hit Blood Skelter.
That was where a good deal of strategy came into play… When it was necessary. In some battles, the corruption meters hardly went up, and Jack was just a free potion tosser. In other battles, I was mentally sweating as I tried to calculate whether it was worth the risk of curing a maiden of Blood Skelter, or if I should hope that no one else entered Blood Skelter or died while I charged up his gun to create more blood. Jack only has a limited amount of blood, which increases based on level and upgrades to his Mary Gun, and every shot has a chance of stunning him. Stun him too many times, and Jack falls unconscious, rendering him useless for the rest of the battle.
As a dungeon crawler, the levels had a tendency to drone on, but I went in expecting that. Some levels, like the Temple, made me groan as I stared at a brand new map. Others, like the Dorm, were much easier to navigate once I figured out the patterns. The game had, in total, nine required zones: City Streets, Graveyard, Temple, Downtown, Waterside, Dorm, Station Grounds, Tower Base, and Upper Tower. The tenth zone, Underground Cavern, cannot fully be opened until after defeating the final boss, and has specific requirements. Some areas required intense backtracking once you received a certain Maiden and her ability. Every maiden has a unique ability to navigate a dungeon’s mechanics, such as Snow White’s Poison Bomb to blow down weak walls; Red Riding Hood’s Sever to cut down fences, wires, or arteries; or Cinderella’s 12-second speed boost that allows her to speed over broken floor tiles.
One important mechanic of the dungeons was the Jail Moods. The Jail responds to three stimulations: Hunger, which requires overkilling enemies or targeting their weak spots; Libido, which required collecting Emotion Points or treasure; or Sleep which… Well, I never was sure of that one. I’m pretty sure that one was satisfied by not taking damage in battle, but I never could be sure. The tutorial on the moods was a bit hard to understand. The moon symbolized the current mood of the jail: White for hunger, pink for libido, blue for sleep. When the moon’s mood matched one of the colors of the Jail’s desires, that specific one rose faster. A pink moon, for example, caused Libido to rise faster. Fulfilling desires allows you to spin a roulette, ranging from lower encounters to buffs, to a zone expansion that unlocked a part of the map previously inaccessible. This meant that unless you managed to get a ‘Jail Area Growth’ on every level of every map, you would never get a full completion on a map clear.
The visuals started to blur together after awhile, but luckily features of note — such as bamboo to sever or walls to blast — stood out on the maps. What saved it from being mind-numbingly tedious was the music. Every zone had its own unique theme that had me bobbing my head in time to the beat. Many of the zones had piano or orchestral themes, or both. Even after I was finished playing, once I unlocked the BGM player in the ‘Bonus’ menu on the main menu, I was selecting my favorite songs to jam out to. The music was definitely one of the best parts of the game. Of particular note is the theme for the Tower; a fast-paced, urgent melody that really had me feeling the need to rush through and save the day. Of course, after spending a few hours clearing the maps and dodging the Nightmare, that urgent melody was starting to make me feel cranky and impatient, but it was still a darn-tootin’ good tune.
And in line of the audio elements, the voice acting was pretty decent. I enjoyed the range of character voices, even if it sounded like Sleeping Beauty was moaning and led to an embarrassing conversation with my coworkers, and there weren’t really any voices that made my ears bleed. Props to the voice actresses as well, who had to record lines sweetly for the Blood Maidens normally; psychotic and angry for Blood Massacre; and then a whole ton of cackling and shrieking for Blood Skelter. Every voice actress in that game showed off a decent range of emotions, which helped lend to the immersion.
Nightmares are a concept that got frustrating rather quickly but certainly added an adrenaline-rushing horror element to the game. In each zone, a Nightmare exists — an unbeatable abomination that takes inspiration from fairy tales. Nightmares don’t always show up on the first floor- with a few exceptions- and usually appear around the third floor, signified by a long howl once you enter. Now, both the Jail and Nightmares howl, but after the first couple of dungeons, it’s pretty easy to identify whether that was a Jail wail or a Nightmare howl. Nightmares are signified by the area growing dark, and a roaming circular area with a dark border, called a Murder Zone. Stay in the Murder Zone too long and a Nightmare Hunt begins, where an unbeatable boss chases you until you get around 75-80m away. In order to stun them and get away, you can use the environment against the Nightmares, as the same traps that harm you also harm them, or engage in a quick battle. By damaging and breaking the Nightmare’s parts, you stun them, allowing you a few seconds of precious running time. Once escaping the Murder Zone and ending the Nightmare Hunt, you also receive pretty decent gear, rewarding you for the heart palpitations you just had.
And I definitely had some during the Nightmare Hunts. There were a few levels where it was easy to escape the Nightmare, such as the Dorm with its long corridors and the hero’s faster running speeds, but other areas became extremely difficult to get out of in time. To make matters worse, in Normal and Horror, the minimap disappears, leaving you to rely on your memory of the labyrinth-like corridors to escape.
Yes, I ended up in a corner and had to battle the Nightmares several times.
In a few levels, the Nightmares also had a nasty tendency to spawn directly on top of me. In some ways, it actually fit with the personality of the Nightmares, as some were certainly more aggressive than others, but it got annoying real fast when I’d be in the clear, no darkness in sight… And the Nightmare spawns on top of me or right around the corner. More than once as well, I’d be stuck at the edge of a corridor, cursing at the Nightmare that had decided to spawn down the very direction I needed to go. Eventually, the Nightmares vanish and respawn later, but there’s nothing like only needing one last corner to fully clear the map, and the Nightmare has decided that’s their new favorite spot.
Nightmares are one of two types of bosses, the others being the Core Guardians. Core Guardians are like normal marchens on steroids and hit pretty hard if you don’t go in prepared for a fight. By defeating the Cores, the Nightmares become vulnerable, making those the second boss fights in each zone. After being chased around by a Nightmare, it becomes delightful to wipe their pink marchen blood all over the floor and make them pay for chasing me into dead-ends several times.
One mechanic I wish they had used more was the Giant Nightmare mechanic. Some Nightmares are too big for a normal fight, and instead, you must travel up a tower-like construct, destroying a part of the Nightmare on each floor. In these special boss fights, there are devices that can help: Cannons that can be triggered by Snow White’s Poison Bombs, or buttons to hit with Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Arrow that activates a switch. You can choose to use or ignore these. On each floor, there is an opening that allows you to get close enough to do damage to the Giant Nightmare, separating the battle into parts.
However, in both a Giant Nightmare battle and a Nightmare Hunt, the battle technically never ends until you or the Nightmare are dead. Maidens stay in Blood Massacre/Blood Skelter mode, and in the case of Giant Nightmares, they can still attack you while you’re running around in the Tower. Random battles do not end, but are called Booked Battles. In a Booked Battle, the Nightmare/Giant Nightmare can still attack. In the case of normal Nightmares, that hard-won distance to freedom from the Murder Zone can be thrown out the window if a random encounter happens. Thankfully, the random encounter meter seemed to go down during Nightmare Hunts/Giant Nightmare battles, but it definitely throws a cog into your chances of survival. I don’t know if the post-game dungeon’s Nightmare is a normal Nightmare or a Giant Nightmare, but I am sad that the Giant Nightmare mechanic was only used twice in the main story, as I found it a nice change to the usual Nightmare chases.
Between exploring dungeons and following the story, there are various side quests to take, given by the Order of the Sun. These can range from fully exploring maps to satisfying the Jail desires for ‘research’, to even just plain old marchen massacres. While they aren’t exactly necessary, they do help out, as you can often get equipment, gold, or affection items from completing the quests.
And affection is where you’ll spend an embarrassing amount of time. In order to get one of the ‘True endings’ with a girl of your choice, you must raise her affection to a max of five hearts, AND find all of her cutscenes. Some of these cutscenes are only triggered when you raise her affection up by another heart. Others are found in the dungeons. Eventually, every girl has what is called a ‘Lewd’ scene, where it unlocks an… ‘interesting’ portrait.
I’m pretty sure by the name ‘Lewd’ scenes, you get what type of picture it was.
Still, the affection gave more insight to the girls, and what motivated them. Usually around the third or fourth scene, it felt a bit copy-and-paste, as Jack always seem to say the wrong thing, anger or upset the girl, then berate himself for not listening or not paying attention to her feelings. Then in the following scene, he’d apologize, she’d explain what she really meant, they’d laugh, and it all would be right again. The scenes weren’t always just between Jack and the girl in question. Sometimes it was a scene between her and her fellow Blood Maidens. While some felt campy and silly- such as Cinderella trying to explain ‘fashion’ to Gretel and Alice- it was still a fun change from the doom-and-gloom, desperate atmosphere of the game. These scenes really helped paint a better picture of the world around them, and how alien of an environment it is, when common things we take for granted such as ‘sugar’ is a rare commodity.
Another mechanic of the game is the ability to give the girls a defense against corruption, by… splattering Jack’s blood on them and rubbing it over their half-naked bodies while they voice their… Enjoyment? Protests? I’m not sure anymore. I kept forgetting to utilize this feature, but it is exactly what you think it is: You rub blood all over them, rub away some of their clothes to make it easier, and if done successfully, everyone’s happy and that Blood Maiden has a lower chance of suffering corruption in battle, making them less likely to enter Blood Skelter. Fail, and she yells at you, and you’re out blood until you can recharge it.
There’s one other side story that threads throughout the game, and that is the Novel pages. The Novel pages follow a different set of protagonists, Mamoru and Hikari, in their life in the Jail, and their eventual fate. Without spoiling too much, I can safely say that these characters appear at a couple of points in the game, and add a twist to the story that I wasn’t expecting. While their fates were left hanging and they vanished as quickly as they appeared, it almost felt like they were the real heroes of the story, and the Blood Team happened to just be in the right place at the right time to fight the battles. One of the characters has a pivotal point in the endgame sequence that really nailed home that feeling of ‘They were probably the stars’, and created my second disappointment with the story: Just like Jack’s origins, the Novel heroes were never given enough time. It is entirely possible I may find out more about them in the Underground Cavern, but, well, you’ll see why that hasn’t happened yet at the end of this article.
The game did do something very kind for players, and that was illustrate where pivotal plot points or boss battles would be triggered, making them easy to avoid if you’re like me and want to explore the entire map first, and giving you a chance to heal up and drop Alice’s Rabbit Hole to save. (Protip: Abuse her Rabbit Hole. It’s awesome to have.) If only they had been kind with the inventory. Your inventory can only hold 99 slots, and a majority of that will be healing items. As such, every time I entered a new level, once I unlocked the warp point for the new floor, it was time to drop a Rabbit Hole and return to the Liberation District to dump items into Jack’s storage in his room, which could hold 999 items. Because of this, I often forgot to upgrade my girl’s equipment until I was getting knocked around by the trash, and then I went back to Jack’s room, checked my equipment in my stash, and swapped everyone out.
Blood Crystals are currency gained from battles and snipping arteries, and they’re also used for virtually everything. If there was a way to buy these bad boys, I would. Want to unlock a new job for Cinderella? Need Blood Crystals. Want to devolve Gretel so you can re-level her and spend her CP better? Gotta have Blood Crystals. Need to upgrade that awesome weapon or armor you got? Where’s your Blood Crystals, mate? Even with fully exploring the maps and hardly running from battles, I still didn’t have all my gear fully maxed, or all my girl’s jobs unlocked by the time I beat the final boss, due to lacking enough Blood Crystals. Gotta have dem crystals, mate. And trust me, upgrading equipment when going into a new zone definitely helps out, especially when some of your characters have the defense of a wet paper bag.
All-in-all, despite its flaws, I found Mary Skelter: Nightmares really enjoyable. I never wanted to put it down, and I’ll be the first to admit that I often forgot to eat because I was so engrossed in exploring levels, or unraveling more of the story. Some of the mechanics felt like they were useless on Dream and Normal, but after checking online message boards, are very useful in the Horror difficulty. Exploring the maps could get annoying when the random battles wouldn’t stop or the Nightmares enjoyed dropping on your head like a bloodthirsty bag of bricks, but despite those annoyances, clearing out the maps was satisfying. I’d spend time in the break room at work just working on the map exploring, then curl up with my headphones at home to follow the story. It is definitely a game I would recommend to friends, with just a forewarning about the ah.. somewhat lewd content.
I will be the first to admit that, yes, the game could get repetitive, especially in regards to the maze-like dungeons, the ease of the trash mobs, and the visuals, but I felt that the good parts of the game more than made up for that. Even with my frustrations about some parts of the story feeling incomplete, I still ended the game feeling satisfied and vindicated with the journey, as well as wanting more. Seriously, I hope this is a universe Compile Heart and Idea Factory International decide to visit again. I’d love to explore more fairy tales, more Jails, and learn more about some of the side-characters. If you’ve got a Vita, I’d definitely recommend Mary Skelter: Nightmares.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go check out this post-game dungeon. I’m sure it can’t be that bad-
So where’s the score? Sorry lads and lasses, there’s no score to be had. A score is just a number, after all, and my goal here was to convey my opinions and impressions of the game, rather than a strict arbitrary number or shaded-in sequence of shapes. Check out the review above to hear my impressions about it, or reach out to me on Twitter for more in-depth questions that I couldn’t answer here!
Full disclosure: This review was completed using a digital PlayStation Vita copy of the game provided by the game’s publisher, Idea Factory. The contents of this review are unbiased, however, and are entirely based on my experience of the game as a gamer, in order to give constructive criticism to the developers/designers, and a fair accounting for other gamers who are interested in the title.