Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a DRPG from Compile Heart. Personally, I have grown rather tired of the genre. Despite having a few unique mechanics, nearly every title feels fairly similar. However, this one has quite a few gimmicks that seem capable of making it stand out.
*Key provided by the publisher.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares opens with something of a jailbreak. After enduring torture for an unspecified amount of time, protagonists Alice and Jack are rescued from their cell by Red Riding Hood. However, escaping the prison entirely is a much more difficult endeavor. Jail, the giant living prison, is full of deadly “Marchens” (monsters, basically) as well as mighty Nightmares that regenerate from even mortal wounds. There is also an issue with height as the Jail extends far underground.
After their escape, Red Riding Hood brings the pair to Dawn HQ. This organization is gathering Blood Maidens such as Alice to combat the Marchen menace and help the central tower grow high enough to make escape possible. While ordinary humans are capable of defeating Marchens, these girls possess superhuman abilities that allow them to excel at this. Obviously, Jack is not one of these maidens. However, he happens to produce unique blood that happens to suppress the negative side effects of a Blood Maiden’s powers. As such, he joins the team and takes on an essential support role.
Shortly after joining the Dawn, Jack and Alice meet the leaders of the Order of the Sun. Most of the civilians have joined this group that preaches on the glory of the sun and provides hope with promises that salvation is on the way. This organization is essentially a cult, and a shady one at that. Still, they have access to main source of food in the Liberated District, so the Dawn tries to keep things somewhat friendly with them. The Dawn itself is rather suspicious as well and the higher ups are clearly keeping secrets of their own.
As the team works toward completing their missions, they learn more and more about the world which only makes the mysteries grow deeper. In this way, the game does a great job of keeping the player interested and invested in the story. There are enough clues that the player should suspect the truth, but it is never entirely obvious and there always seems to be more than one possible answer to everything until the time comes to finally reveal all. Of course, this is a game, so there must be a final confrontation. Everything that happens after the team learns the whole truth feels like a mess of clichés that are only there to make this confrontation happen. Still, everything leading up to that point is presented well and makes for a compelling story. It is not the greatest tale ever written, but it was fairly entertaining throughout the game.
Aside from the main scenario, Mary Skelter: Nightmares also includes side stories for each of the Blood Maidens. Unlike the proper story which maintains a serious tone for almost its entire duration, these events tend to be more lighthearted in nature. Unfortunately, the cast does not have much depth to explore and few of the jokes are all that funny. Players can expect to find the usual assortment of misunderstandings that are common with this sort of harem setup. Most of these lack the extra effort necessary to make them work as an effective gag, so there really is not much humour to be had here.
The harem setup also brings with it the usual issue of needing to give everyone enough presence to please fans of every character. In the final dungeon, they all say a line that shows that they have grown and are ready to take on this final challenge. Then they do the same in the next scene and the next.
There are a few typos in this translation, but not too many and most of them are just one word off. With one exception that I found, context clues are enough to figure everything out without much trouble. The exception is in the skill description for “Poison Bullet” which implies that it hits multiple enemies when it actually only hits a single target.
As one would expect from a DRPG, the dungeon exploration in Mary Skelter: Nightmares uses a first person perspective. The environments that players explore have quite a lot going on in their design. As per the lore, the Jail is mimicking the land it absorbed. Therefore, each area resembles human architecture. However, these environments also feature distortions based on the same fairy tales as the heroines. Gretel’s home is just as much a gingerbread house as it is a school. Shoes and clocks litter the distract where Cinderella was found. Since the Jail is a living thing, organs are also part of the landscape. The Jail also lacks an understanding of the things it creates, so much of the scenery is rather grotesque, especially when the decorations move. The end result creates a rather unsettling atmosphere that helps give the game a distinct personality.
Each area has its own assortment of unique creatures, but the variety in each area is lacking. Since locations only has so many types of beasts, reskins help fill out the roster. These families are essentially the same with the same weaknesses and usually the same skills; changes in appearance mostly just signifies a difference in power. Much like the environments, many of these Marchens happen to resemble things from the same stories as the main cast. Still, some are just monsters that seem suitable for the land. At the very least, the fearsome Nightmares are unique.
When Nightmares are around, the area grows dark. This limits visibility, which is very important during these encounters. Ordinarily, players can choose to have their map on the screen as they wander the labyrinth. However, once a Nightmare begins chasing the party, the map goes away if the player is not on easy difficulty. Fortunately, Marchens have luminescent blood. As the team slaughters their foes, blood sprays around the area. Naturally, excessive overkill yields larger volumes. This glowing fluid never vanishes and can help illuminate the maze when running in the dark.
While enemies have 3D models, characters in the player’s party appear as 2D sprites when issuing commands. Most of the default outfits were issued by the Dawn and have some similar features. Black is the dominant colour of this somewhat formal attire while red and white appear as accents. This is a good colour scheme and the sprites look pretty nice overall. When characters change jobs, they get new outfits. This change of apparel not only appears in battle but also shows up during dialogue and even in some gallery images. The designs themselves range from normal street wear to nurse costumes to nothing but a shawl and panties. Blatant fanservice aside, these outfits have appealing colour schemes as well and fit their motif well enough.
The music in Mary Skelter: Nightmares uses a lot of violin and piano. While many of the songs lean toward pop with a good amount of energy, there are plenty of sweeping orchestral tracks and somber pieces as well. Early on, several tutorial messages pop up during a harrowing escape sequence through a creepy town. As such, the upbeat tune kind of ruins the atmosphere. Aside from that, the songs do a great job of supporting the mood of the scenes they are in without being too busy and getting distracting. The soundtrack sounds pretty nice overall and I enjoyed listening to it throughout the game.
The game features dual audio with options for Japanese and English voice acting. IFI put together a really great cast for the dub and pretty much every line sounds wonderful. However, English audio appears in very few scenes; it is rare to hear it even during main story events. On the other hand, the Japanese track features full voice acting in every scene. For the most part, the original cast put in decent work as well. My only complaint there is with Sleeping Beauty whose pauses sound unnatural and can get annoying.
As with most DRPGs, Mary Skelter: Nightmares features turn based combat. The usual attack, guard, and skill commands are all present in the battle menu. However, this game also has a more unique “lick” option. Taking advantage of elemental weaknesses or otherwise just hitting enemies really hard tends to create blood splatter. The girls can lick this blood off each other for buffs or healing. Alternatively, they can let it accumulate and eventually go into Massacre mode which enhances their stats.
However, “corruption” builds along with the blood when the party suffers. As corruption increases, so does the risk of the girl entering “Blood Skelter” mode. This form also enhances stats, but also takes control away from the player and can result in friendly fire. This is where Jack comes in. While he can not fight directly, he can use his blood to eliminate corruption and reverse Blood Skelter. Of course, letting out too much blood can knock him out. When not busy dealing with corruption or unconscious, Jack is also in charge of using items. He can guard someone too, though he gets knocked out quickly this way.
Making enemies bleed also helps to fill up the Jail’s hunger meter. If it becomes full during combat, a roulette of random buffs starts spinning and players can stop it at their leisure. Outside of combat, satisfying any of the Jail’s three desires starts a roulette with other benefits. While shedding blood and collecting items are easy enough, showing mercy while the dungeon sleeps is annoying. It sleeps at random, and in my experience, it rarely ever occurs.
Perhaps the most notable gimmicks in Mary Skelter: Nightmares are the Nightmares. These powerful fiends prowl the dungeons in real time. Even if the player stands still, darkness may fall over the area and with it come these foes. Once a Nightmare has its sights on the party, they will chase the team down until they get too far away. Not even encounters with other enemies will stop Nightmares from stalking their prey. During combat, these monsters continue acting in real time, forcing players to quickly navigate menus to mitigate damage. What really makes these enemies threatening is that they can not die until the object they protect is gone. Destroying their parts only stuns them, giving the team more time to create distance. There are also giant bosses in the game that attack large sections of the map, but there are very few of them.
While Nightmares are visible while exploring the map, most encounters appear randomly. Players will also randomly encounter a wandering merchant who sells many goods that are not available in the town’s shop. Having the ability to purchase items come down to luck is kind of annoying, but it is merely a minor a gripe.
Players will also find many traps while exploring the living Jail. These obstacles come in a wide variety of forms, from spikes and guilotines to speeding mine carts and flamethrowers. Most of these dastardly devices move constantly, though some wait for a target to pass by before triggering. Others operate via switch. I learned this the hard way when I flipped a lever and turned around just in time to see the arrow flying toward my face.
The dungeons of Mary Skelter: Nightmares also contain a number of navigation gimmicks. Every character has their own talent that has some use during exploration. Some can destroy walls, others can hit distant switches, and one can create a save point that also lets the party warp back to the city. Even Jack can solve certain puzzles by spraying his blood. There are also things like tightropes to cross which triggers an easy balance mini-game.
Overall, these elements do a good job of keeping the game entertaining. Being chased by a freakish, unstoppable Nightmare can be scary. Having traps test not only one’s foresight but their reflexes as well is exciting. Blood management helps to keep battles engaging.
Playing on normal difficulty, I found the game to be challenging, but not too harsh. I often found myself worrying over dwindling health and mana reserves when starting new areas, but I rarely actually lost anyone. Once opponents stopped being threatening, it was time for new ones or a boss to bump the difficulty back up. As the game goes on, mana becomes less of a concern, but the Marchens are no less threatening. Easy mode drops enemy stats, but also reduces the experience and money they drop. Horror difficulty does the opposite. Messing with such things seems like it would upset the game’s balance, though I did not have the time to confirm this. At the very least, I know the game was enjoyable on normal.
When not out exploring, the city has some content to offer as well. Players can use the blood crystals that Marchens drop to enhance the stats of their equipment. However, these items are also used to unlock new classes and drop character levels. Once a character acquires a class, they no longer have to spend crystals to switch back. However, job changes still require an additional item that characters gain periodically as they level. Characters can use and upgrade active skills from any class they have unlocked, but passive bonuses only activate for their current form. Meanwhile, de-leveling allows the cast to gain extra stats and skill points. Overall, players who enjoy unlocking perks and maxing stats will have plenty of content to work towards.
The city is also where the purification process takes place. In this mini-game, the girls are doused in blood and it is up to the player to wipe it all off within a time limit. In addition to providing a bit of fan service, this also gives the girls a temporary boost to their health and mana and also raises their resistance to corruption. After scrubbing a girl for the first time, the game lets players skip the process and automatically apply the buffs if they do not want to do it again. Clearing the game unlocks a special version of this activity without a price, time limit, or buffs, essentially letting players rub the girls to their hearts’ content.
There is an affection system in the game. The only way to increase affection is to give the girls lots and lots of gifts at the base. Once their affection surpasses certain thresholds, extra scenes become available. Most of these take place within the city, but a few require heading to specific spots in the dungeons. Others require advancing the story to a certain point so that all characters involved with the event are present. Viewing these scenes unlock powerful massacre skills, so being locked out like this can be somewhat annoying. Affection also has a role in determining what ending the player gets.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is exactly what I wanted. The various gimmicks in its dungeon crawling help to make the game feel fresh in a genre that is becoming very stale. Normal difficulty provides the perfect level of challenge; it is neither too easy nor troublesome. The characters are lacking in depth and the game’s few attempts at humour mostly fall flat, but the mysteries of the main story manage to be rather compelling. Furthermore, the art is eye-catching and most of the music is pleasant without being distracting. This has become my favorite game in the genre and I feel safe in recommending it to anyone interested in such things.