Review: Mary Skelter: Nightmares involves some rather risky (and risque) business

The PlayStation Vita is rife with dungeon-crawling JRPGs. Traversing expansive spaces in the first person with a group of characters you are able to customize and organize in some way is commonplace. This means new games need to try something different to stand out. Enter Mary Skelter: Nightmares. In this Compile Heart and Idea Factory International release, players follow characters inspired by fairy tales as they attempt to escape a sentient jail. Sound weird? It totally is.

Mary Skelter: Nightmares is set in Tokyo, but not one that will look familiar to anyone. A creature known as Jail has swallowed the city and dragged it 666 meters underground. Marchen, unholy monsters, roam this sentient prison’s halls and rooms. The humans inside may find themselves trapped in cells, tortured by this unholy place, or living within a Liberated District where the Dawn Liberation Force and a number of other survivors attempt to stay alive.

Blood goes flying as these Blood Maidens defeat the Marchens marching through the mazes.

Our Mary Skelter: Nightmares begins with a young boy named Jack and his friend, Alice. The two are trapped in one of these cells, tortured daily. Fortunately, a member of the Dawn Liberation Force finds them. Red Riding Hood claims Alice is a Blood Maiden, one of the few people able to actually damage the Marchen. Shortly after, we learn Jack is a rare individual with blood capable of purifying Blood Maidens. Jack, Alice, Red Riding Hood and other Blood Maidens named Thumbelina, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Kaguya, Rapunzel, Gretel and Cinderella head off to climb and conquer a tower in the middle of Jail that could lead them to freedom.

Mary Skelter: Nightmares is, for the most part, a traditional dungeon-crawler with turn-based battles. Players’ parties are filled with five heroines, with some in the front and back lines, depending on which of the over 20 jobs you have assigned to characters. Each character is better suited for certain specialties due to her stats, which means you could end up having Alice as a Fighter, Red Riding Hood as a Blood Hunter, Thumbelina as a Therapist, maybe Snow White as someone like an Item Meister and Sleeping Beauty as a Sniper. There are almost too many options, which I felt forced me to play things safer. The women fight your battles for you, using various attacks and special skills. Blood goes flying as these Blood Maidens defeat the Marchens marching through the mazes. This can trigger a Massacre Mode, which makes them temporarily stronger than normal. Too much of this “good thing” can lead to a Blood Skelter Mode, which sends the overpowered character out of control. You want the women to be saturated in blood, making them stronger than usual, but not too overwhelmed.

It is possible to manage that risk. The sixth, omnipresent member of your group is Jack. He is capable of shooting his own blood with the Mary Gun at girls to reduce the influence of the Marchen blood. However, he only has so much blood. Performing a Life Purge, which takes a Blood Maiden who has gone over the brink into Blood Skelter and returns her to normal, knocks Jack out and thus keeps him from performing that cleansing action on anyone else. You are constantly assessing and managing the risks of letting women get too corrupted. Something that could very easily happen, since monsters lurk everywhere and eliminating them causes the blood to go flying. Staying healthy and sane is quite a tricky thing. Learning how to properly manage it can take a while.

Getting through Mary Skelter: Nightmares’s massive dungeons is no easy feat. Each segment you visit will have an unbeatable Nightmare that can not be tackled until its Core is wiped out. These are sprawling areas, some with dead ends that offer rewards that are not worth the track, if they offer such items at all. Trekking through these rambling and repetitive spaces could have become a tedious and unwelcome prospect. After all, many of the enemies repeat with different color schemes and save points are few and far between. There are Warp Points, which make things easier to bear. The Jail can get hungry, lusty or sleepy, which means you need to spill more Marchen blood, find Emotion Points or treasure or avoid battles to satisfying it and trigger a roulette to give you bonuses. These elements all add some much needed variety to the locations, though there were times when I wished things were a little more succinct.

Jail is filled with elements that make you pay attention to your surroundings.

There are other things that keep players’ on their toes. Jail is filled with elements that make you pay attention to your surroundings. There are all kinds of traps. You may run into pits or things that trigger status ailments. Roads could be blocked. Being aware of all these things is important to successful excursions. So are the various Blood Abilities. Every Blood Maiden has a special skill that aids in dungeon crawling. The first two you have access to are Alice’s Rabbit Hole, which creates a portal that lets people save or immediately head back to the Liberated District, and Red Riding Hood’s Body Nipper that lets her cut through Jail blockades to keep moving. What is especially neat is how each of these skills, while helpful, is tied to the characters’ respective stories. Kaguya, inspired by The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter character who was found inside of a bamboo stalk, puts up a temporary Bamboo Guard to nullify hazard damage. Cinderella can perform a temporary Twelve Dash that lets you speed through a dungeon to get through areas a section may be closed off after a certain period of time.

Then, there are the Nightmares themselves. While the standard Marchen enemies begin to all look and function the same, the Nightmares up the ante. These are initially unbeatable opponents that stalk the Jail. When you come upon their lairs, familiar game elements shift or disappear. The mini-map vanishes and the Jail grows dark, so you can’t see where you are going. Only getting into fights with standard enemies can illuminate the way, as their blood will splatter on the walls and light up the dungeon. However, the Nightmare is always drawing nearer in real time, with its distance from you displayed on the screen, and it can catch up and appear when you are fighting other foes. While you can temporarily stun this major enemy, you can not defeat it until you have defeated a heart. It adds an element of risk and horror to Mary Skelter: Nightmares. There’s a sense of urgency when a Nightmare appears. This intensifies further for the rare Giant Nightmare battles, during which you need to go between floors of a dungeon to defeat different parts of a boss, all without being able to open the menu during it.

Unfortunately, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is one of those games that is heavy on fan-service. Fortunately, people who don’t care for such things can easily avoid the most uncomfortable part. Let’s begin with the unavoidable connotations. Characters lick blood off of each other to heal. You never see this happen after making the command, which makes it easier to bear. Also, I find it is more creepy than suggestive. When characters enter the Blood Skelter state, their clothing disappears and what appears to be either blood or energy covers their most sensitive areas. Again, this isn’t uncommon for JRPGs and you only see these particular portraits when characters get corrupted.

The only part of Mary Skelter: Nightmares fan-service that may make people feel uneasy involves the Purge. This is a purification minigame where players rub blood off of the Blood Maidens. (Naturally, it also causes her clothes to disappear too, because this is a Compile Heart game.) This segment gives you a limited amount of time to clean every splatter off of the heroines in exchange for temporarily boosted HP and SP for the next dungeon. This also involves jiggling and suggestive moans. You can completely ignore this element of the game once you are successful, which is a relief.

The need to constantly be aware of characters’ corruption, your capability of cleansing those impurities, the Jail’s current state and the threat Nightmares pose forces you to think even more strategically than usual.

Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a game that tries to set itself apart from the other dungeon-crawling RPGs available on the PlayStation Vita. In some areas it succeeds. The need to constantly be aware of characters’ corruption, your capability of cleansing those impurities, the Jail’s current state and the threat Nightmares pose forces you to think even more strategically than usual. You have to take multiple risks to survive. It also shoehorns in the same sort of fan-service as games like Criminal Girls and Monster Monpiece. The result is something that may not be “terrifying,” but can get scary fast if people are not being careful. It is an interesting RPG, albeit one that may not appeal to as wide an audience as titles like Demon Gaze or Dungeon Travelers 2.

Score: 7/10
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Release Date: September 19, 2017
Developer: Compile Heart
Platform(s): PlayStation Vita
Questions? Check out our review guide.
A review copy was provided by the publisher or developer for this review.

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