(Disclaimer: Review copy of game provided by Play-Asia.com. Play-Asia link is an affiliate link.)
There are few games that make a big enough impact on us to make us want to play them again and again, over and over. In my first adventure into the tile-based dungeon crawler genre, I found that Holy Grail in the form of Mary Skelter: Nightmares for the PS Vita. Developed by Compile Heart, the same minds behind the Neptunia titles, and localized by Idea Factory, this game is a great find for those who love dungeon crawlers, creepy cute things, and adorable anime girls. My review copy was provided by Play-Asia, one of the retailers you can get the game. It is also available directly from Idea Factory in their online store.
The story of Mary Skelter: Nightmares revolves primarily around two main characters, Alice and Jack. Our hero and heroine are trapped in a cell in a place known simply as the Jail, which is home to numerous monsters known as Marchen. Very soon after the intro of these characters, they are saved from their predicament by Red Riding Hood, a peppy older sister type working for The Dawn. The Dawn are an organization that is trying to escape the Jail, and they rescued Alice for one very important reason.
Like Red Riding Hood, she is a Blood Maiden, one of the few people in the hellscape known as the Jail who can take on Marchens without being in immediate danger. There is a catch for these Blood Maidens, though. They risk going into a state of absolute berserker bloodshed known as Blood Skelter, a transformation that is caused by being covered in Marchen blood. The Blood Maiden loses control of herself and, eventually, can wind up killing herself and others around her. This is where Jack comes in with the Mary Gun, designed by the Dawn to combat Blood Skelter, using Jack's own blood. The duo work with the Dawn and other fairy-tale named Blood Maidens to destroy the Nightmares that inhabit the Jail and escape.
If any of that just flew over your head, worry not. You’ll get introduced to all this in-game.
This was my first time playing a tile-based dungeon crawler, and to the uninitiated, the game play is thankfully very straightforward. Gear your characters up, then go forth into the Jail. Exploring dungeons on a tile based map, you travel in a group of 6 (5 Blood Maidens and Jack), and find traps and puzzles that need to be solved to get to the Nightmare that oversees the area. The Nightmare can and will hunt you down, chasing you around the area until you get a certain amount of tiles away from it.
The battle system in Mary Skelter is a typical turn-based system common in JRPGs. Each Blood Maiden can use normal attacks, skills, or lick Marchen blood off of the other girls for bonuses or restorative effects. Jack is the only one able to use items without use of a skill and he is also able to shoot his blood at the Blood Maidens, reducing the chances of Blood Skelter mode for the individual Maiden. There is an element system for combat that uses the usual water beats fire type system, but it feels somewhat misplaced in the game. Without such a system, the game arguably wouldn't be any different. Finally, there is a part of the gameplay that offers a bit of some lewd fun, but that bit is optional for those who find head pats (among other things) too lewd.
Overall, the game play lends itself well to telling the story of the Blood Maidens and Jack, even if the element system feels a bit tacked on.
Graphics and presentation-wise, Mary Skelter has become one of my favorite games. Using the creepy-cute elements that have been popularized in Japan, and spread across the globe, the world is built in a way that feels slightly eerie, but also approachable as to appeal to fans of many aesthetics. The feel of the game in that sense is very similar to A Witch’s Tale from NIS back in 2009, but it goes a step further than A Witch's Tale did by adding in horror elements that really punctuate the “creepy” part of the creepy-cute. Parts of the Mary Skelter, design-wise, also reminded me a lot of Corpse Party. An example would be the Dorm level in the game, which resembled a Japanese school with bleeding walls, a crucial element from Corpse Party, but it did not feel like a ripoff in this case.
Those creepy elements are matched with the cute designs of the Blood Maidens. The character designs in the game are very well done, offering cute, sexy, and creepy outfits for all of the girls. The style of the game lends itself very well to the atmosphere they were trying to produce. There were no frame rate problems or any graphical glitches that I met in my two playthroughs. The only issue I ran into was that the game had a bit of a hard time keeping up with me when I would do massive item selling sprees.
The sound design in this game also helps the world building. All of the music was very fitting for each area, from the very bouncy and quirky to the more solemn and sad tracks. The only real complaint I have about the sound happens to be a complaint I have with a lot of English dubs, and that is that the English voice acting is vastly inferior to the Japanese voice acting. While the English VAs did well, their acting didn't carry the same levels of personality that the Japanese VAs managed.
Many characters in English suffered from the “same voice" phenomenon, making characters with opposing personalities sound the same as each other. The analytical and arguably cynical Gretel ended up sounding too similar to the ever proper and cleanly Cinderella. I would recommend playing this game with the Japanese VAs to get a clearer idea of the characters personalities. The only audio glitch I ran into was a loud buzzing noise that would happen during some of the Nightmare encounters at the end stages of the game. While the noise quickly disappeared, it still was very distracting and happened a bit too frequently for my taste.
The settings and customizability of the game is very limited, but arguably for good reason. Things such as text speed and volume are adjustable, and there is the option to turn off all voice acting, or just the male voices. There is also the setting to change between English and Japanese VAs, so you can always change which voices you want to hear on the fly.
Overall, if you're a fan of JRPGs, creepy cute things, and anime girls, I cannot recommend this game enough. While I was playing, I realized the game reminded me of Persona with the dungeon crawling elements, A Witch's Tale in aesthetic, and Corpse Party in its use of interesting story that leaves you questioning the motives of some characters. I played Mary Skelter through twice, the second time specifically to get the good ending. I spent about a month to play it total, and considering each Blood Maiden has their own special character end, I can tell I'll be playing this game a lot more in the future too. I absolutely would recommend this game to anyone who has been curious about it.
I wanted to leave a few tips and tricks that will hopefully make your experience a little easier so you aren't getting the most anti-climactic ending first like I did. I'll try to make sure these are as spoiler free as possible:
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