Mary Skelter: Nightmares
Publisher: Idea Factory
Developer: Compile Heart
Release Date: 09/22/2017
Idea Factory continues to be a constant source of content for the Vita, even though the platform has been mostly abandoned at this point. It still serves as a great home to a number of niche Japanese titles, and it doesn’t get more niche or Japanese than something Mary Skelter. This is a dungeon crawler feature half naked anime girls and involves licking blood, using the touch screen to rub the “corruption” out of said anime girls, and even throws in some minor dating sim elements. If this is enough to turn you off of the game, it would be understandable. Those who stick with it though, can actually find a flawed, but mostly well executed JRPG.
You’ll play as Jack, the prototypical vanilla lead male, as he traverses through “Jail”, a living prison that long ago enveloped an unnamed city. Jack and his friend Alice join up with a organization dedicated to escaping Jail. They plan to do this by utilizing “Blood Maidens”. Blood Maidens are young girls with the power to utilize powerful weapons and magic that is powered by the blood of the monsters that roam throughout Jail. Up until Jack joins, said girls were in danger of becoming corrupted by the monster blood to the point of going insane. Jack, the first of his kind discovered, is able to heal that corruption by splashing his own blood on the Blood Maidens. With this new power at their disposal, Dawn, the aforementioned organization begins their plan to escape Jail in earnest.
As the plot goes on, you’ll learn quite a bit more about the setting and the characters. Each of the girls is named after a classic fairy tale heroine, and there’s a reason for that. It’s actually explained. You can also befriend the girls by giving them gifts, and this will unlock bonus scenes and open up the ability to get a specific romantic partner at the game’s end. While some of the characters get a lot more screen time than others, and some of them are a bit bland, there’s more than enough here for a fan of the genre.
Problems arise when you reach the ending. You see, if you didn’t scour the earlier dungeons for specific items and trigger the associated events, you will be unable to get the good ending. It doesn’t matter what choices you make at the end, or who you tried to romance. You need those items. If you happen to have missed them by the time you reach the final chapter, you will be unable to trigger the needed events and be stuck once again. This kind of tactic was acceptable back when games took twenty to thirty minutes to get through, but for an RPG designed to soak up dozens of hours, it feels incredibly cheap. Be warned, and use a guide if you need to. Also, many of the game’s big twists come out of a exposition dump at the end, and the reasons given are completely out there. On top of that, the game even admits the twist was crazy, and flat out tells you trying to explain it would be too much work. You’re just supposed to roll with it. That’s just lazy. However, if you can avoid the bad ending, there’s not too much to complain about in terms of the story. It’s a bit typical apart from the crazy setting, but decent enough.
In terms of visuals, this game is strictly middle of the road. The characters are portrayed through portraits that remain mostly static apart from some minor animation. They have a couple of different poses and change attire based on the job assigned to them. That’s it. Little is done to express the story through images. For example, one story bit involves a character losing her earring. However, both of her earrings are still on her portrait, which kind of mitigates the crisis. For dungeons and battles, you get the usual first-person view. There are a couple dozen different enemy types and about three different colored versions of each. These bad boys are in 3D and actually have a couple of different animations they go through. The dungeons themselves are the real star though. While they do occasionally feel like copy/pasted nightmares, they’re usually filled to the brim with nice touches. Splashes of blood, searching eyes, and other decorative touches make each dungeon feel distinct and more alive than the usual fare. It’s a passable looking game, so long as you don’t mind half naked anime girls.
For audio, you have the choice of English or Japanese voice tracks. Either will work, although there appears to be less English voice acting than Japanese. It’s pretty decent stuff apart from an awful battle scream that Jack does. The music is pretty stand out, as there are a number of memorable tunes and the various battle themes can easily get stuck in your head. The effects are fairly standard. It’s a more than acceptable package overall.
Like other Compile Heart games, Mary Skelter has a lot of little mechanics and tricks to give it its own identity. For starters, there’s the blood meter. As characters land critical strikes or use elemental weaknesses on monsters, they get blood splattered on them. When this blood meter reaches its highest level, the character will enter “massacre” state. This gives them new abilities and ups their various stats until the effect wears off or battle ends. However, they will start earning corruption as they take damage, and if the blood meter is corrupted when it reaches max, they could enter “blood skelter” mode. This increases their strength dramatically, but robs control away from the player. More worrisome is the fact that they can and will target your team as well as foes. The only way to cure skelter mode is to end the battle or use one of Jack’s blood abilities.
Speaking of Jack, he’s a rather unique character for a game like this. He is unable to attack or do damage in any normal way. He’s a support character in truth. He can use items, guard one of the girls, create blood, or use a blood ability. At the start, the only blood abilities you have are curing corruption or curing skelter mode. Using these empties his blood meter, and he can stun himself if the blood is too low. So you might need to take a turn off to create blood. Later additions to his skill set allow him to become even more invaluable.
Dungeons in the game are interesting in that you move through them square by square like normal, but the game keeps going in real time. That means that you have to keep moving at a quick pace to avoid traps. More importantly, there are large boss characters called “nightmares” that will occasionally show up to hunt you down. Instead of memorizing their patterns, you simply need to run far enough away. The catch is that you can’t use the map during these chase sequences.
Dungeons in the game are fairly large, with each floor often taking up to an hour to get through. Each location is full of dead ends, traps, and puzzle sections where you need to manipulate the environment in some way. Thankfully, the developers avoided some of the annoying tropes of the genre, such as warp pads that send you back to the start of the dungeon. You can also use the map to have the game automatically move you to a spot you’ve been before. It saves on commute time, and lets you take a breather every once in a while.
The battle system is fairly typical for a game like this. Characters act based on their speed, and have a handful of basic options. They can use basic physical attacks, utilize their learned skills, guard, or use items. Unique to this game is the “lick” mechanic. When a girl has at least three blood splashes on her, another girl can lick that blood off to get a bonus of some sort. For example, licking Alice restores some health, but licking Sleeping Beauty gives every a chance to critical hit on the next attack. This removes all the blood from that character, which can be useful for avoiding skelter if Jack is stunned or busy elsewhere.
Outside of battle, you have a number of nifty ways to customize your team. Each girl has five different jobs they can assume, each with unique skills that can be learned and carried over to another job. The catch is that you have to earn job points to switch jobs, which you get every certain number of levels. You also need blood crystals, which are dropped from enemies. It’s generally not that difficult to get them, however. You can also use those blood crystals to expand you skill slots, upgrade your gear, and de-level one of your girls. De-leveling allows you to set them back to certain milestone levels, but keep their skill points. It’s a nifty, but unnecessary feature. Speaking of those skill points, you’re free to level up or learn whatever skills you want from whatever jobs you have unlocked. You can truly set each character how you want her.
The game is fairly tough until you get the hang of it, and enemies will pile on the damage if you aren’t careful. You’ll find that area-of-effect attacks are invaluable, as is using Jack to heal instead of one the girls when you can avoid it. Restorative items are plenty, and money is easy to amass. The key with the game is remembering to power up your teams between excursions, and to upgrade their equipment whenever you can. Worst comes to worst, you can lower the difficulty from the menu.
The game can last you a few dozen hours at least, and balloon up a bit if you want to see it all. The various endings can easily be seen from a late game save (as long as you’ve got the gun upgrades I mentioned before). It’s not an overly impressive length for an RPG, but it won’t sell you short either.
Short Attention Span Summary
Mary Skelter is high on the kind of fanservice that might turn some people off, but it offers a solid RPG experience for those willing to work through it. The only major flaw is that you can wind up unable to see the good ending because you didn’t pick up random objects that the game doesn’t even warn you about. If you go in with that knowledge intact, and play carefully, this can definitely be worth your time.
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