Idea Factory/Compile Heart games can be hit or miss affairs, but their latest, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is (for my money) one of their best games (and best dungeon crawlers) to date thanks to taking chances with a few tried and true formulas and smacking most them right in their sweet spots. It’s got the turn-based dungeon crawl aspects of the Wizardry series mixed in with real-time chase/combat scenarios, excellent production values and yep, a bit of M-rated fan service lightly sprinkled on top for good measure.
While parts of the plot can be somewhat pedestrian in their usage of familiar anime/manga tropes, things take a few interesting turns as the game goes on. The use of well-known mostly female characters from popular fairy tales works quite well provided your brain properly detaches them from any imagery you might recall (or: you need to re-imagine everyone as anime gals). Of course, the gameplay is where it’s at and what’s here will keep you hooked in to the very end (and then some). If you’re a fan of the aforementioned Wizardry, Etrian Odyssey, Demon Gaze, and Dungeon Travelers 2 among other dungeon crawlers, this one’s a drop everything and go kiss your Vita if you own one event.
The main story involves a living tower-like dungeon called Jail looming over a city in Tokyo it has buried underground and the attempts of a squad of lovely anime ladies and one guy tasked with climbing that tower with intent on defeating the Marchen (monsters) and Nightmares (bosses) that inhabit it. The team’s main purpose is to enter the Jail’s oddball dungeons and defeat the Nightmares, which will grow the tower and allow it to reach the planet’s surface, allowing the citizens of the underground Liberated Zone their true freedom. There’s a bit more (well, a good deal more) to the story, but letting it unfold while playing is the best means of experiencing it.
The fairy tale influences come in the form of character names and some visual elements in the assorted dungeons. You get hero Jack (that Jail is his Beanstalk) Alice (Alice in Wonderland), Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Thumbelina, Cinderella, Princess Kaguya (from Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), Gretel (but no Hansel), Rapunzel, and a well-hidden character you won’t meet until very late in the game. Each gal has her strengths, but equipping and upgrading weapons, armor, skills and accessories is key to surviving the Jail’s threats. There’s also a Job system that works a bit better than the dual-classing found in the Wizardry or Elminage games (which are basically Wizardry games at their core with nicer character/enemy artwork). The drawback being some jobs can seem redundant when/if you use certain characters who gain or inherit skills others can use.
With its living Jail, deadly Blood Maiden cast, “Blood Skelter” rages, blood licking to boost stats or heal, and generous pink blood splatters that accumulate and stay coating the Jail’s walls and floors, the game has a distinctly morbid yet mildly sexual vibe that works quite well overall. Art direction leans toward a mix of surreal elements and twisty, complex dungeon layouts that can grow as you explore. It’s almost as if Tim Burton teamed up with Salvador Dali and both went and made a Wizardry game, what with some of the wilder level art, Marchen and Nightmare designs.
Those Nightmares are a freakishly frightening bunch and shake things up by chasing you in real time, which forces you to run away or fight them until they’re temporarily disabled. They can’t be permanently killed until you find and destroy the dungeon core (and mid-boss) located deep within each multi-floored area and then take them on with your best skills and attacks at the ready. Even then, expect a few surprises as you’ll need to take on at least two forms before they eventually keel over from your hard work.
Once a Nightmare is downed, the real fun begins as you can either progress to the next floor or a new chapter or (more importantly), continue to explore the floor you’re on with the goal of uncovering every bit of a map you can. Thanks to the auto-pilot option, you don’t really need a good sense of direction until/unless a Nightmare is close and you need to escape a Murder Hunt. When this event occurs, the area around your party darkens, the map and auto-pilot are disabled and your only source of light are the blood splatters from earlier Marchen battles.
That living Jail has three desires. Hunger, Libido, and Sleep. Fulfilling each fills up a separate icon and once this occurs, you’ll get a roulette wheel onscreen that doles out assorted benefits. One of these will “grow” new areas in most dungeons that allow you to reach previously impassable or impossible to get to areas. There will still be spots that can’t be reached until Hansel-less Gretel joins up, but exploring and later re-exploring levels adds gold, experience and plenty of Blood Gems (which can be used to upgrade gear, expand skill slots and change jobs). You’ll also run into a merchant selling some handy items, gear and gifts, but expect some great random drops from chests, item points, and Marchen that can really enhance your party’s stats.
Initially, the game seems similar to other Compile Heart dungeon crawlers in that you get female party members doing the fighting while the male lead is more or less a neutered non-combatant who can only defend one girl at a time and eventually gets the girls to pay him increasing amounts of attention. However, the not-quite hero eventually gets a special gun that allows his blood to purify the girls or calm them before they enter Blood Skelter mode at the cost of him passing out if he spills too much ichor.
As you progress through the first few chapters, the game throws a lot at you through numerous (but brief) on-screen tutorials (you can read them if missed by selecting the Library on the in-game menu screen). If you think anything longer than three or four lines is a “wall of text” (oh, brother!) well, guess what my friends: paying attention to everything in those tutorials really makes the game a great deal more impressive.
One example: each Blood Maiden has a handy skill that can make everything from Jail navigation to item use work better. Want to save almost anywhere (save for Murder Hunt event zones)? Have Alice drop a Rabbit Hole down, which can also warp you back to the Liberated Zone if you need to resupply or take care of other business. Cinderella’s Rose Arrow can activate certain switches too far to reach, but can also help map out dungeons if you get creative with the skill. Snow White’s Poison Bombs blast through certain walls and can damage Nightmares chasing the party (and your party if you’re within blast range). If you don’t pay attention to each gal’s skills (or check the tutorials), it’s possible to get stuck in a dungeon through your own ignorance.
My own play style was to follow my general dungeon crawler rule: explore and level up a fair amount just to survive the usual difficulty spikes these games tend to take when a new area is reached. Here, the game’s first two chapters give you Alice and Red Riding Hood to start (Chapter One) then Snow White and Cinderella, followed by Thumbelina (Chapter Two), with the other gals popping up as the plot unfolds. The terminally lazy Kaguya is seen lounging around early in the game, but she doesn’t become a team member until a bit later. Another cool touch is you can pair up inactive team members as partners with active ones, adding buffs or attacks to them depending on who’s teamed up with who and netting partners experience points for tagging along.
Par for the course in a Compile Heart dungeon crawler, there’s a romance angle with gift-giving and assorted events where each girl may or may not fall for Jack based on a few variables. It’s a bit simplistic thanks to the ability to abuse the gift giving system to Jack’s advantage. On the other hand, you’ll need to stick with one girl by the finale and/or have multiple save files in play if you want to catch every event and a few variants. There’s also a mini-game where you can rub the gals to remove blood splatters and purge them before entering the Jail. It’s optional after the first time, turning into a simple button press, which is a good thing if you carry your Vita around, play in public and don’t want to field questions from total strangers about what you’re doing with your finger.
In addition to the solid visuals, both English and Japanese voice acting are here and both are very well done. My first playthrough started in English, but I switched to Japanese about an hour in just for a truer overall experience. Difficulty is also changeable during play (Dream, Normal, and Horror) so you can bump things up or down at your leisure. I stuck with Normal, knocking down to temporarily Dream in once case where I decided to explore a tough map that seemed a few levels too high for my party, but then decided to try Horror out. That bump up lasted until I popped into that dungeon again and the Nightmare was right at the entrance, freaking me out with its crazy face. Or: A hasty retreat was indeed beat – and I found myself with much-heated feet. Hey, rhyming feels good sometimes!
Overall, I was more than pleasantly thrilled by Mary Skelter: Nightmares because it’s a case of a game having a lot more depth and relying on a mostly less is more approach when it comes to fan service while still appealing to those who mostly want that waifu thing they crave. I play these games for the dungeon crawling first and foremost and these massive maps made me misty for the days of graph paper mapping and deciding which way to go at an intersection. I’m not sure if Compile Heart has plans for a follow up, but as long as they take what works here and improve upon it, whatever comes next will be an even more instant buy.
Edit: And yes, the game has some nice free DLC that includes a new job for all the cast (Sakura Maiden), a special outfit and healing items, plus two nifty Vita themes to install. Whether you get the Standard, Limited Edition or digital versions of this one, those extra freebies make a solid game even more enjoyable. Go get this, I say.
(Score: B+ 85%)
Review code provided by the publisher