Platforms: PS Vita
Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Release: 19th September 2017 (NA) / 22nd September 2017 (EU)
I love gruesome, dark games and stories, so naturally Idea Factory International´s latest game Mary Skelter Nightmare caught my attention in an instant. A Dungeon RPG set in a living dungeon while we play as so-called Blood Maidens and blood symbolizing a gameplay element? Doens´t sound too boring and it certainly didn´t disappoint me. So, what makes Mary Skelter Nightmares such a good DRPG?
Trapped in a giant jail, the resistance named Dawn wants to finally free themselves from the everlasting prison. Freeing and recruiting so-called Blood Maidens, which are able to fight against the jail created Marchens, Mary Skelter Nightmares is told from the view of Jack, a friend of the freshly freed Alice, a new Blood Maiden. On their way through the different districts they meet more and more other Blood Maidens, gathering more friends and learn more about the jail with every step.
In contrast to a lot of other games, Mary Skelter Nightmares playable protagonist is by far not one of those heroic, strong heroes. In contrast, Jack is just a teenager who wants to protect his friend Alice, while she slowly descends into the world of the Blood Maidens. By making the main protagonist vulnerable, merely an observer at times, Mary Skelter Nightmares story gets a whole new layer of helplessness to the player. Jack can just stand by and watch how his beloved friends stand at the edge of despair.
Especially blood is a very important theme throughout the plot. Beginning at the Blood Maidens, that essentially draw their strength from it. Being drenched in blood they are able to enter Massacre mode, yet, if they overdo it they might fall into Blood Skelter, a horrifying mode where they lose their sanity and can´t think of anything else than blood. Despite the fact Mary Skelter Nightmares is about cute girls wanting their freedom it can achieve such a unique, fresh feeling through its tormented Blood Maidens. Nearly the whole focus is on these girls forced to balance between insanity and power. Combined with constant references to famous fairy tales with names like Red Riding Hood, Mary Skelter Nightmares can create a gruesome, grim atmosphere. No character is particularly unique but they work very well alone by being innocent girls, which problems we have to witness in this jail. Mary Skelter Nightmares can tell its morbid story full of blood and despair in one of the best ways I´ve ever seen in a DRPG.
On the other hand, there´s also another very important part, essential to let Mary Skelter Nightmares work as a whole, the jail itself. In contrast to all other DRPGs I´ve played, the jail actually lives here, it breathes, it has hunger, it needs to sleep and all this human stuff. Nothing turns out as expected because the game offers one surprise after another, none of them are good. Prisons themselves are worse enough but a living jail adds so much in terms of atmosphere during exploration before Mary Skelter Nightmares begins to drag Jack and Alice deeper into the realms of blood.
As mentioned, the living jail is primarily used to create a great atmosphere during the necessary exploration trips into the dungeon. Instead of plain walls or repeating textures one as bland as the other, Mary Skelter Nightmares uses its jail to the fullest potential. Every wall seems organic, be it because of eyes or hearts sticking out of it, sometimes even veins. Topped by scattered cages, dices and objects almost taken directly from Alice in the Wonderland, Mary Skelter Nightmares can merge a brutal prison with fairy tale influences, creating a dungeon unseen in its appearance and interesting sides.
Enhanced by the great Soundtrack, featuring tracks with exactly the same influences. From creepy carnival music to mysterious ballads, everything can be found here. Along the unique visual dungeon design and character names, the trips into the jail can build up their own atmosphere in a perfect way. Besides, Mary Skelter Nightmares also features some quite high-resolution textures, monsters and effects for a Vita game. Environments don´t only look impressive because of their style but also from a technical point of view. On top of all that, the overall artstyle of the characters and portraits in general look simply stunning. Drawn with a huge love of detail and a unique, fitting style, the characters look beautiful but symbolize a japanese interpretation of old fairy tale heroes at the same time.
Gameplay-wise, Mary Skelter Nightmares has the courage to do some new things too. While the base is a very classic DRPG equipped with all the basic actions like attacking, skills, defending and the possibility to escape. Yet, the blood theme is used to spice things up by a lot. Every character has a blood bar now consisting of five blood drops, indicating how much blood they “got” on them. These can be obtained by attacking enemy weak points or by critical attacks. Once a character has a full blood bar they will go into Massacre mode, greatly increasing their attack and giving them access to new, cheap skills. They also heal if they land the last hit.
Since they go into Massacre mode automatically, it´s essential to coordinate and plan every turn, in order to get the most out of the Blood Maidens. However, with the “lick” command the blood can be used for healing as well. When a Maiden licks the blood off of another Maiden, the blood bar is drained and the “licking” Maiden regenerates a huge chunk of her health. Additionally, yes there´s more, Blood Maiden are also in the danger of entering the fearsome Blood Skelter mode, if they take too much damage with a full blood bar. Basically, a character in Blood Skelter won´t accept any orders and attack randomly every round.
The only way to cure this state of madness is the seemingly useless protagonist Jack. Early on he receives a blood gun, due to his blood´s ability to cure Blood Maidens of Blood Skelter. Shooting Jack´s blood at a Maiden then heals her, consuming one turn in exchange. Surprisingly, Jack can´t do much besides this vital but non-damage action. Able to block the damage of a girl before he gets stunned for some rounds might prove useful in certain circumstances, yet it´s strange to have a party member unable to attack or defend himself, fitting perfectly into the strange universe of Mary Skelter Nightmares.
Additionally, Mary Skelter Nightmares features a so-called Nightmare Hunt feature. Randomly activated during dungeon exploration Nightmares, powerful monster which can´t be killed at the start, appear and chase us. Forced to run through the dungeon without a map and the constant threat of the Nightmare behind me, these sections prevent the exploration from becoming boring for even one second. I even ended up in completely new areas, leading me to another great aspect of the dungeons, their design. Full of passages or walls, that need a certain Maiden with their own, unique ability to be demolished, dungeons have more of a metroid vibe than many other DRPGs.
Between missions the Maidens gather at the liberated district, the hub world basically. From collection quests, to shops, weapon enhancements or simple conversations, everything is present. The only truly outstanding thing about enhancing the Maidens are the different jobs each can learn by spending collected crystals. All change the portrait of the Maiden as well as adding some valuable class specific skills, that can even be transferred between the jobs, enabling for some very deep customization. Along the necessary fanservice, consisting of rubbing blood on the girls … because why not.
All in all Mary Skelter Nightmares is by far not “another DRPG” but one of the greatest ones I´ve seen since years. Building upon the established standards of the genre while adding its own style to every aspect. From the grim, gruesome theme of blood, madness and shown problems of helplessness symbolized in the main character, the game thematises all of them in unique ways. Mixed with the tragic heroes, the Blood Maidens, and their implementation into an already good gameplay, make Mary Skelter Nightmares one of the best and most diverse DRPGs on the Vita.
[A Review Code was provided by Idea Factory International]