Mary Skelter: Nightmares is one of my favourite dungeon crawlers in a long time. Granted, I don’t play a huge number of them and I may have missed some other gems over the years, but I can’t think of any other dungeon crawler that’s captivated me as much as Mary Skelter since Persona Q. Much of that enjoyment comes from the game’s intricate labyrinths and rich turn-based combat, both of which are genre staples, but the thing that sets this game apart from its peers is the setting and the story that unfurls through it.
Mary Skelter takes place inside the Jail, a living, breathing organic prison far beneath the earth’s surface, where humans have long been imprisoned and have no memory of life before. They’re subjected to daily torture at the hands of demons called Marchens, and hope isn’t just lost; it’s something most have never known. Such is life for our two heroes, Jack and Alice.
At least, that’s the case until the day they’re rescued by Red Riding Hood. She represents a rebel called the Dawn Liberation Front, who fight for the day when humanity can escape the Jail for good. The secret to their success is a group of fighters called Blood Maidens, who are able to channel the Marchens’ bright pink blood into raw power. Red Riding Hood is one such Blood Maiden, and as it turns out, so is Alice.
As part of the Dawn, Jack and Alice join the rest of the Blood Maidens in exploring the Jail. This is where all the dungeon crawling takes place, and this is also where Mary Skelter puts its best foot forward. The whole “living dungeon” premise allows for some otherworldly sights: walls throb with a pulse, eyes watch your every move, and intestines hang out through cracks, waiting to be severed. This is meshed with more typical architecture as a result of the Jail quite literally having swallowed a whole city in the years past; with urban streets, temples, and boardwalks in its DNA, the Jail’s evolved to become a sort of haphazard pastiche of the cities of the “old world”.
What this means, in practice, is that Mary Skelter’s dungeon is made of a bunch of different zones that are instantly recognisable—the Downtown area is full of bright lights and dark alleys, the Temple area is all bamboo forests, shrines, and shōji—but that are distorted from reality just enough to be deeply unsettling. This isn’t a horror game per se, but it uses a horror aesthetic to great effect, setting a tone that makes the many hours of dungeon crawling equal parts exciting and eerie. Layered on top of the more typical excitement of navigate these winding corridors, solving puzzles, and trying to get the coveted 100% completion on a map, this makes an engrossing dungeon crawler experience.
It also perfectly sets up one of the game’s defining mechanics: fleeing from “Nightmares” that patrol each area. These bizarre creatures are far stronger than your typical Marchen, and under normal circumstances they can’t be killed. Instead, encountering a Nightmare means you have to flee—but while you’re on the run, you have no minimap and the lights are dimmed. Needless to say, these “Murder Hunt” scenes are intense. You’re lost in a maze with little to guide you along the “correct” path, and unwittingly backing yourself into a corner is a very real threat. Dungeon crawling itself isn’t turn based (as it is in, say, Etrian Odyssey), so time is also of the essence. Coupled with Mary Skelter’s general approach to visual design, Murder Hunts really sell the horror of the Jail. (It’s worth noting that you retain your minimap during chases when playing on the easy difficulty, allowing for a more relaxed experience, but no-minimap Murder Hunts are worth experiencing at least a couple of times a couple of times.)
Keeping with this theme of twisting the familiar, Mary Skelter draws heavily on fairy tales for its characters. Each one of the Blood Maidens is based on a well-known folklore heroine, from Snow White to Red Riding Hood to Kaguya-hime, but given the situation and the violent nature of their role, they’re much darker takes than you might expect to see elsewhere. Rapunzel is a child who’s almost feral, having spent most of her life in isolation from other humans; Cinderella has a dangerous obsession with her crystal shoe earrings, convinced that she’s hideous and useless without them; and so on.
You also wouldn’t usually see these fairy tale princesses aggressively butchering demons and showering themselves in said demons’ hot pink blood, but in Mary Skelter that’s exactly what they do. After all, that’s the key to their power, and they’re the key to the Dawn’s escape. Critical hits and exploiting elemental weaknesses lead to explosions of blood, in turning filling your party members’ Blood gauges; once full, they go into a state called Massacre for a few turns, significantly ramping up their stats and granting them access to powerful special attacks.
Jack’s position within the group is quite different, because he’s not a blood maiden and he can’t fight. Indeed, for the first few hours of the game, he’s almost entirely useless. His only battle commands are “Wait” and “Guard”; the first does nothing, and the second lets him take a hit on behalf of one of the Blood Maidens, but he can only take two hits before being knocked out, so it’s very much a tool for emergencies. . His feelings of uselessness are a big part of his character arc early on, because he wants to help fight, but he’s powerless to do so.
Before too long, he finds his role among the Blood Maidens thanks to a unique property in his blood. See, the girls’ power comes from Marchen blood, but exposure to it can also drive them berserk. Receiving a lot of damage causes a Blood Maiden’s corruption to ramp up, indicated by a gradual darkening of her Blood gauge, and too much corruption causes her to enter a mode called Blood Skelter, causing them her attack friend and foe indiscriminately.
Jack’s blood, for some reason, can quell that. His usefulness comes through a special gun connected to his veins that—quite literally—shoots out his blood. Obviously, this is a costly maneuver itself, since Jack’s blood is in limited supply, and the amount of blood needed to remove corruption depends on how much corruption there is to be cleansed. Waiting, now, has a use: it lets him recover some of his blood, so that he can go back to shooting it out at his companions.
[Jack’s role] is a refreshing twist on a premise that often comes across as a little bit uncomfortable.
This puts him in an interesting position, especially when you consider that Mary Skelter is, at its heart, a harem RPG. This game is similar to the likes of Criminal Girls and Conception in that it has cute, fierce women on the front lines while a male protagonist supports them from the sidelines, but it flips that concept by making the protagonist more of a cheerleader than a coach or puppet master. His role in combat is purely a supportive one (an archetype often given to women characters, I’d add), and he’s very much the equal of the Blood Maidens rather than being their “leader”. It’s a refreshing twist on a premise that often comes across as a little bit uncomfortable.
On that note, Mary Skelter is probably the least racy game we’ve seen from Compile Heart—a developer that’s made its name on fan-service and titillation. It has a petting minigame, but that’s a very small part of the whole package, it’s relatively subdued, and it’ss strictly optional. The most suggestive moments in the game are Blood Skelter transformations, during which Blood Maidens lose most of their clothing and get wrapped in an aura of pink blood—but given Blood Skelter’s role in combat as a punishment, these transformations are actively discouraged. Aside from that, Mary Skelter is quite tame, with just some risque outfits and a bit and the odd double entendre in the writing Lewdness isn’t something I take too much issue with, generally speaking, but I often find Compile Heart games to be excessive or tonally inconsistent, so Mary Skelter‘s more restrained approach is welcome.
There’s a lot of eroticism in Mary Skelter, but it’s more subtextual than in most Compile Heart games, and it’s part of a story that makes exploring humanity a major theme. As much as this game is about exploring dungeons, it’s about exploring the motivations of people, from the most primal sexual urges to lofty, abstract concepts like hope and religion. It’s perverse at times, but that’s deliberate, and it’s not particularly explicit in its perversity. Instead, this is comes through the game’s symbolism, mainly through the motif of blood—something that’s been layered with all sorts of meaning over the course of history, from a symbol of carnal desire to one of godliness.
In sum, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a fascinating game. The simple pleasure of exploring every corner of its detailed dungeons has me hooked, but it’s the game’s world and the story woven through it that I’ll remember for a long, long time to come. It’ll be familiar on a mechanical level to anyone who’s ever played a modern dungeon crawler, but what’s wrapped around that is unlike anything else I’ve played.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is developed by Compile Heart and published by Idea Factory. It’s available now for PlayStation Vita.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.