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Review

Review: Mary Skelter – Nightmares

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Compile Heart don’t have the best track record for quality games. The early Neptunia games, Agarest and Mugen Souls were all very poor games in various ways, but in recent years they’ve started to improve. I feel confident in saying that, while not without flaws, Mary Skelter is by far Compile Heart’s best game and hopefully a sign of things to come.

From the visuals alone, it’s easy to tell that Mary Skelter is different from the usual Compile Heart affair. Sure, there’s the usual cast comprised of mostly teenage girls, but the overall tone is darker across the board. This leads well into the premise of the game. The game is set in the nightmarish “Jail”, a living prison that feeds off the emotions of its tortured prisoners. Jack and Alice are two prisoners who are freed by a girl named Red Riding Hood. We quickly learn that both both Alice and Red Riding Hood are “Blood Maidens”, girls who are capable of fighting the minions of the Jail, known as Marchens.

Again, this is noticeably darker than something like Neptunia, though they don’t really take it very far. Aside from the the opening chapter, nothing particularly gruesome actually happens and most of the more interesting events are just hinted at or mentioned in passing. It feels like they didn’t want to go all in on a fully mature or violent story which is a shame.

The story for the most part is a missed opportunity. The story quickly becomes fairly mundane with only a few standout moments, and the focus ends up shifting to the various Blood Maidens you encounter. Each one has various events that can be unlocked by reaching certain levels of affection. Affection is increased by giving them items and furniture for their room. You can try to give them gifts they like for a higher affection boost, but it’s generally easier to just spam a lot of cheaper items. This system has no real depth and just feels tacked on, which is something that can be used to describe the “romance” style gameplay systems.

For example, there’s a purging system that allows you to buff the blood maidens temporarily by… rubbing them. This system can easily be ignored and feels like it was something that Compile Heart added just to make sure there was enough fanservice. Speaking of fanservice, aside from the aforementioned purging, there is very little of it which is honestly welcome. There are some costumes that show off a fair bit of skin, but by Compile Heart standards the game is pretty tame overall.

When it comes to gameplay, Mary Skelter doesn’t stray too far from other games in the genre. Dungeons are explored in a first person fashion, with various labyrinth areas to discover. The powers of each Blood Maiden are brought into play for puzzles and traversal of hazards. An early example of this is Red Riding Hood’s scissors that can be used to destroy fences and other objects. Also as a decent quality of life feature, Alice allows you to save nearly anywhere in a dungeon or transfer back to town. This does take away the tension of making your way though longer dungeon floor, but it’s a welcome feature for those unfamiliar to dungeon crawlers.

Puzzles unfortunately never become too difficult, and will generally be repeated over a few dungeons. This is a missed opportunity, since a wider variety of uses for each of the girls’ abilities would helped to break up the fairly generic dungeon crawling. Many of the abilities are also needed rarely, further reducing their usefulness.

During dungeon explorations, three meters will fill up: Hunger, Libido and Sleep. Hunger fill with battle, libido with item collection and sleep by avoiding damage. These meters grant bonuses once filled, given to you by a roulette wheel. Most of the effects are minor, but the dungeon growth option gives you access to new areas that are hidden otherwise. I’m not too big of a fan of hiding areas behind RNG, but since the meters fill up so often it isn’t too hard to unlock all the growth areas eventually.

The only truly interesting idea that Mark Skelter brings to the table during dungeons are the Nightmares. These large enemies show up at random to stalk the player, and once within range they initiate a chase which only ends once you manage to run out of their range. The Nightmares move in real time, interrupt battles and cannot be killed until you destroy the dungeon’s core.

At first, these Nightmare encounters do a good job at keeping you on your toes. However, it quickly becomes apparent that they aren’t as scary as the game wants you to believe. Most of them can be lost after travelling a short distance away, which is quite easy even with the minimap disappearing during chases. The only times I found the Nightmares to be somewhat challenging was against the larger ones, where you have to destroy multiple parts while traversing the environment.

Battles are fairly standard, but again the Blood Maidens and Jack bring some unique mechanics that are fairly fleshed out. Each girl has a blood meter that can be filled by hitting an enemy’s weak point or doing enough extra damage to overkill them. Once filled they enter massacre mode, boosting their stats and giving access to more powerful attacks. Since Massacre mode is so powerful, you’re rewarded for learning enemy weaknesses and doing as much damage as possible.

Aiming for massacre mode does bring its own risks though. If the girls are hit with heavy attacks or ones they are weak against, the blood meter starts to darken. This represents their corruption, which increases the chances of them transforming into “Blood Skelter” mode. Like massacre mode this powers up the girls, but with the added downside of being completely uncontrollable.

To avoid the chances of this happening, Jack must use his blood to purify the girls which is his primary focus during battles early on. Jack does gain extra moves as you progress further in the game, but for the most part he’s there to reduce corruption and cannot fight directly. The dynamic of blood and corruption helps to keep battles feeling more tense, since there’s a chance that someone could enter Blood Skelter and take out half your party in an instant if you’re not paying attention.

To improve your characters during battle, the game gives you access to various facilities. The main one of these is the laboratory, allowing you to change a Maiden’s job, increase their skill slots or use Blood Devolution. These all require Blood Crystals that are dropped from enemies and the environment. Each Maiden has six available jobs, though you only start with one unlocked. Jobs not only change stats, but also give you access to new skills.

The skill system is where most character customisation will come from. While passive skills are only available on the job you unlock them from, all other skills can be mixed and matched freely. This allows you to take some hard hitting moves from one job, while also having access to buffs and other beneficial effects. Battles in Mary Skelter overall aren’t too challenging, which gives you some leeway on the types of character builds you can run. I’d like to see this job system used in more dungeon crawlers, since it gives you enough customisation without being overly complicated.

Blood Devolution is another addition to character development, reducing a characters level in exchange for permanent stat boosts and skill points. This adds another way to power up your character, along with the added bonus of being able to change up your unlocked skills if you desire. As with the job system, it’s a great and simple way to add extra depth to the game.

As mentioned near the beginning of this review, the visuals of this game really stand out. This applies both to the great 2D art (featuring the same artist that worked on Trillion) and the varied 3D environments and enemies. The dungeons especially are fun to explore, each with their own interesting visual themes. This is a massive step up from the bland environments of the aforementioned Trillion or even most of Idea Factory’s other works. The game does suffer from performance issues though this isn’t too big of a problem thanks to most of the game being turn-based.

Enemy designs, especially the Nightmares, are creative and give extra charm to the game. There are perhaps a few too many recolours of enemies for my liking, but the original designs are good enough for me to excuse the asset reuse.

Conclusion

Some of this review may seem too harsh on Mary Skelter, especially after looking at my claim in the opening paragraph. However, this is only because I had wished for the game to be more than it ended up being. With a stronger story and a bigger focus on the darker side of the jail, Mary Skelter could have been truly great. The game we ended up with is still a competent dungeon crawler, but I can’t help but wish that it ended up being something more.

Game Title: Mary Skelter: Nightmares

Genre: Rollenspiel

Release Date: 22.09.2017

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This game was provided by the publisher for review purposes, check our review policy for details.

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