The ending of Mary Skelter: Nightmares didn’t really leave much room for a direct sequel, but its unique world left so much potential for more stories to tell and ideas to explore. Where many a game would simply try to shoehorn in some contrivance to allow a follow-up to a story that had previously closed all those doors, Mary Skelter 2 takes a different: it jumps right back to the start of the first game, and envisions what would happen if that story branched off in a different direction.
It’s a sort of “What if?” scenario: what if Jack, the protagonist from the first game, was turned into a Nightmare, the series’ boss monsters that stalk the halls of each labyrinth? What if the Dawn Liberation Front, whose headquarters served as the player’s based throughout Mary Skelter, was completely destroyed and all its key members went missing?
If you’ve played the first game, this alt-worlds setup makes for an interesting way to dive into what is essentially more of the same (which is no bad thing). It takes familiar characters and familiar settings, recontextualises them, and mixes in some newcomers that the new narrative direction opens the door to. If you haven’t played the first game, you can just enjoy Mary Skelter 2 on its own merits—it just means it’s its own standalone thing, instead of a “What if”. It’s a win/win.
(I would note that the plot of Mary Skelter 2 is more connected to that of Mary Skelter: Nightmares than it first seems, though to say more would be to give up one of its biggest secrets. For the most part, it functions like a standalone, alternate-universe thing.)
What hasn’t changed in this new scenario is the setting and visual theme that made Nightmares so memorable in the first place. The games take place in the “Jail”, a living, breathing prison that endlessly tortures its human prisoners. This Jail sits on the remnants of an old city that it’s completely absorbed, turning its labyrinthe hallways into a grotesque blend of city sights and outlandish horrors. It’s a place where the walls of an underground cave are adorned with disembodied mouths that threaten to bite you as you walk past; where an otherwise unremarkable dormitory drowns in bright neon “ice cream” that throbs and pulsates; where eyes growing out of the walls watch your every move as you wonder the city streets.
While most humans are confined to cells and only let out when they’re being escorted to their daily torture, there was a small group that had managed to escape and set up a small base from which to plot their escape. The Dawn Liberation Front, they were called, and their secret weapons were Blood Maidens: humans based on characters from fairy tales and folklore who, when exposed to the garish pink blood of the Jail’s demonic guards (“Marchens”), turn into supercharged monster killers. In Mary Skelter 2, the Dawn is mostly vanquished aside from a few surviving Blood Maidens and a couple of new recruits, but their purpose is still the same: to find a way to escape, to search for any new Blood Maidens that might join their cause, and try to find their missing Dawn companions.
This sets up the dungeon crawler game at the heart of Mary Skelter 2. With a party of Blood Maidens, you explore the Jail’s mazes, gradually mapping them out, avoiding deadly hazards, solving puzzles to open the way forward, and fighting Marchens in turn-based random encounters along the way. With each new area come new gimmicks to deal with, like slippery floors that send you careening off in one direction until you hit a wall, or trolleys you can use to ride railways. Each Blood Maiden, too, has a unique out-of-combat ability that’ll help with exploration—Rapunzel can use her long her to hit otherwise out of reach switches, for example.
The biggest threat you’ll find in each dungeon, though, is its Nightmare. These boss-class monsters roam the streets and hallways looking for humans to eat, and until certain conditions are met, they can’t be killed—when you run into one, the only option is to run away. The catch is that once a chance sequence starts, you lose access to your map, leaving you with nothing but your memory and your wits to get you to safety instead of stuck between a Nightmare and a dead end.
This makes for moments that are tense and deliberately stressful, inspiring, on a mechanical level, exactly the kind of terror that the Nightmares are supposed to represent. If they do catch you, you can temporarily knock them out by doing enough damage in combat, but given how strong they are, that’s a last resort that’s just as likely to get your whole party wiped out. (It’s worth noting that, when playing on Easy or Very Easy, the map will still be visible during chase scenes. That’s handy if you want a more relaxed experience overall, but it’s worth experiencing a proper map-less chase at least a couple of times.)
In all these fundamental systems, Mary Skelter 2 is pretty much identical to Mary Skelter: Nightmares—though they’re still compelling enough that that’s not really a problem. There is one major change, though, and that’s in how Jack works.
In Nightmares, Jack was basically a support character (despite being the protagonist). He couldn’t really fight, and his main role was to prevent the Blood Maidens from going berserk from overexposure to Marchen blood. In Mary Skelter 2, Jack is a Nightmare, albeit a good one. He still plays the same support role, but now he has to deal with the possibility of losing control and letting his Nightmare side take over. If this happens, he’ll rampage and attack friend and foe alike; if it happens three times in a battle, it’s an instant game over. Luckily, there are tools to help keep in under control, like spending a turn making him take a deep breath, thus calming him before he gets to his breaking point.
This adds an interesting new dimension to combat, with another potential risk factor to have to account for and mitigate. It doesn’t dramatically change the fundamentals of the game, but it’s a welcome addition all the same.
Beyond that, Mary Skelter 2 is really just more of the same. That’s hardly something to complain about, though—Mary Skelter: Nightmares was one of the best dungeon crawlers of recent memory, so having more of the same, but with new dungeons to explore and a new story to uncover, is good enough for me.
The publisher provided a copy of this game to Shindig for reviewing purposes.