GhostLight’s wonderful port of Mary Skelter: Nightmares brings the game to PC in a flawless translation of the Vita version and yes, it’s absolutely worth a buy. Seeing and playing it on a larger screen reveals sharper enemy and background art, but you won’t be fiddling with anything other than resolution and window size settings if you really need to. In fact, the rather low system requirements makes this one of the more accessible modern dungeon crawlers out there. Even if you’re not into the anime art style and overall offbeat tone here, the game excels on the gameplay front in capturing the spirit of the classic Wizardry games.
That’s not to say at all that the game is an entry level experience. There’s a decent enough difficulty curve and a combination of expansive maps, deadly traps and powerful bosses that will keep you on your toes. 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 more complex 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 western style RPG, what with some of the wilder level art, Marchen and Nightmare designs. As noted above, those Nightmares which were great for some surprise frights on the smaller Vita screen benefit greatly from really being in your face on a large monitor or laptop screen.
Those Nightmares also shake up the standard random turn-based battles by chasing you in real time, which forces you to run away or fight them until they’re temporarily disabled. Should you encounter one while fighting a Marchen, it’ll join the battle and make your life hell until you either escape or die. They can’t be permanently killed until you find and destroy the dungeon core (and a tough 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 deal with at least two forms before they eventually keel over from all 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 you can 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 heroic (and somewhat whiny) Jack 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. Jack’s actually quite weak as a character for the bulk of the game although it’s his own blood that can keep the girls from wilding out at the most inopportune times.
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 when you’ve put what you’ve learned into action. Those longer story moments can be fast-forwarded through in case you’re really impatient. In fact, I zipped through most of them thanks to playing the game previously on the Vita just so I could get back into exploring and leveling up my team.
Each Blood Maiden has a handy skill that can make everything from Jail navigation to item use work better. Want to save almost anywhere (except for Murder Hunt event zones)? Have Alice drop down a Rabbit Hole, 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 romance-related 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 routine, which is a good thing if you’re playing this on a laptop in public for some reason and don’t want to field any potentially nosy queries.
In addition to the solid visuals, both English and Japanese voice acting are here and both are very well done. Difficulty is also changeable during play (Dream, Normal, and Horror) so you can bump things up or down at your leisure. As with the Vita version, I stuck with Normal, but then decided to try Horror out to see if it was the same as the portable version. It was. That difficulty test lasted until one of the later stages where a Nightmare drops in to say “Hi!” right at the beginning of the map and it was right at the entrance, freaking me out with its crazy face. The funny thing is this happened on a different map than it did on the Vita as did the dungeon unlocking new rooms upon certain requisites being met. This kept the game fresh for me and should do so for everyone else who plays at their own pace and with their own strategies.
Overall and once again, I was more than pleasantly thrilled by Mary Skelter: Nightmares on PC 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. Personally, I play these games for the dungeon crawling first and foremost and these massive maps made me misty for the days of pencil on graph paper mapping and deciding which way to go at an intersection. I see that I’ve missed out on a few other ports Ghostlight has done, so it looks as if those will all get added to the backlog at some point.
Score: A- (90%)
Review code provided by the publisher