Mary Skelter Finale brings Compile Heart’s provocative trilogy to a close as it adds a unique, multi-party twist on the classic dungeon crawl.
At a time when pop culture is particularly interested in reinterpretations of classic fairy tale characters, few works stand out like Mary Skelter. Its decidedly fetishistic tone and a setting that’s equal parts alluring and grotesque is a big part of that, but just as intriguing—if less likely to upset the fragile sensitivities of the Australian Classification Board—is the way it frames those tales it draws from. Dig past all surreal body horror and deliberately exaggerated eroticism, and Mary Skelter is a series about how stories are told, and the way they take on a life of their own through retelling.
That was never more clear than in the true ending of Mary Skelter: Nightmares (as seen in its reimagined form in Mary Skelter 2—it’s complicated, don’t ask). In paving the way for the inevitable conclusion to this trilogy, it also created a blank slate for Mary Skelter Finale to go in any direction imaginable.
That makes it a little disappointing that the choice made was simply for more of the same, but with higher stakes. It’s an understandable choice, perhaps; given how much Mary Skelter relies on its unique setting, there are expectations that need to be met. But after the way Mary Skelter 2 doubled down on that tone while turning the entire story of Mary Skelter: Nightmares on its head, I was hoping for something similarly subversive from Finale. Instead, we got a new, bigger, deadlier labyrinth and a new, bigger, deadlier enemy to contend with—exciting, certainly, but also a missed opportunity to really push the boundaries after a perfect setup from the previous game.
But the weight of expectations notwithstanding, Mary Skelter Finale is a hell of a ride—one that takes the dungeon crawling foundation and horrifying yet mesmerising settings of the previous games to new heights. Sure, it’s not quite as shocking or groundbreaking as the previous games, and gets a little too bogged down in the lore that’s built up over the course of them, but it’s still got plenty of excitement, drama, black humour, and the unique atmosphere that makes Mary Skelter so compelling in the first place.
Finale opens with Jack, Alice, and the rest of the crew finding that the freedom they thought they’d find after jumping out of the frying pan is, in reality, just an extremely hot fire. coming face to face with Massacre Pink, a group of assassins so violent and bloodthirsty they make the Nightmares that stalk the series’ iconic Jails seem like puppies. A frantic escape sees the party split up, and spread across an assortment of terrifying new Jails—those surreal, organic dungeons that put a gruesome horror twist on locations both familiar and fantastic.
This paves the way for Mary Skelter Finale‘s most substantial change: multi-party dungeon crawling. At any given moment, you’ll have four, five, even six different parties that you can switch between, as they explore different sections of each labyrinth in parallel. All the usual gimmicks, traps, switches, and the like are here to hinder your progress, but with the added layer of puzzles that can only be solved by another party: a locked door whose switch lies in a different section of the map, an item that needs to be transferred between groups using storage lockers, and so on. It doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of Mary Skelter‘s dungeon crawls, but adds an exciting new dimension to them; zapping back and forth between groups to solve puzzles in tandem feels almost like a single-player coop variation of the classic dungeon crawl.
Multiple parties also means different strategic possibilities and challenges arising from the different group compositions. Mary Skelter Finale does a good job of ensuring each group is balanced and viable, but with such a large cast who are all so different from each other—even characters who fill similar roles tend to feel very different—different groups wind up approaching the same challenges in very different ways. It’s fascinating to see how those things unfold.
That also means a lot of micromanagement. Mary Skelter has always had a lot going on when it comes to character growth and customisation, between levelling up, job changes, skill growth, weapon upgrades, delevelling; in Finale, you’re doing all the same, but for a bunch of different parties. Exploring how all these different pieces come together is a min-maxer’s dream, and the interplay between different squads can take that to another level, but it can also be overwhelming and see you get lost in the reeds.
In an indirect way, Mary Skelter Finale also builds on that character growth with its “Jail Control” features. In short, you can customise the difficulty of any expedition in exchange for better rewards—get an experience bonus in exchange for disabling the minimap, or more gold from slightly reduced stats, and so on. As you find special items, you can also customise the roulettes that spin when you satisfy a jail’s primal urges (hunger, sleep, libido), to try skew those towards your preferred prizes.
Beyond that, Finale largely plays like Mary Skelter: Nightmares and Mary Skelter 2 before it—which is to say, it’s a rich dungeon crawler with some neat twists on the classic formula. Nightmare chases, in which you try to flee from an unkillable foe while your minimap gets hidden, are as tense as ever; the unique field abilities each party member brings to the table bring a lot to the design of the dungeons and puzzles within them; combat is still a refreshingly frantic turn-based affair that sees you trying to reap the benefits of getting beloved storybook characters into blood-induced frenzies without letting them go so far over the edge that they lose the ability to distinguish friend from foe.
Likewise, the story sticks close to the themes that have been bubbling over the course of the previous games. Hope and despair—and clinging to a sliver of hope, no matter how tiny, in the face of a despair that seems insurmountable—are a major thread running through the whole game. So is the question of freedom: can characters whose histories are so closely tied to the stories the hail from ever break free of their fates, and carve their own paths? And by extension, to what extent are the stories themselves—living ideas that they are, constantly changing through being told and retold—bound by the same inevitability? With more at stake and some intriguing new characters thrown into the mix, Finale drills into these ideas that Mary Skelter has been navigating since its inception.
The fetishtic atmosphere sits heavier here than ever before, with blood, sexuality, and primal, carnal instinct being recurring motifs. It’s deliberately perverse, weaving eroticism and grotesque horror together in a homage to grindhouse cinema: excessive to a comical degree, gross but strangely captivating. And in the context of a story about reinterpreting and questioning the way we understand folk tales, this sort of transgressive perversion of familiar childhood stories is fitting. It’s also not nearly as bleak as that description makes it sound, with plenty of humour and surprisingly uplifting moments to balance out the twisted foundation.
If you want a bit more of a break, there’s always Locked Up in Love – Blood High, a high school romance visual novel spinoff. It was previously only available as a preorder bonus for the Japanese version of the game, but now it’s readily available to all—and serves as a fun distraction from the main game.
That playful little side-story aside, the ideas at play in Finale are ones that Mary Skelter has been running with since the beginning: of hope and despair, of fate and free will, of fetishism and transgression. Finale doesn’t try to change that; rather, as the dramatic conclusion to the trilogy, takes those ideas to new extremes that enthrall and (deliberately) repulse in equal measure. I still wish it went further, and took the opportunity given by the earlier games’ endings to truly push the boundaries, but failing that, the more-is-more approach works just fine. And with the neat twists that the multi-party setup brings to the dungeon crawler formula to tie it all together, Mary Skelter Finale is a great send-off to one of thee most unique, memorable settings in recent videogame memory.
Mary Skelter Finale
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Release date: 30 September 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.