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Review: Mary Skelter: Nightmares

21 Sep 2017

Cashing In Desire

The idea of the “obligatory sex scene” is a fairly well-known one in the realm of film. Sex sells, after all, which means Hollywood is apt to include a few moments of the hero and heroine gettin’ it on if it will help get more people into theaters, even if the scene is wholly unnecessary to the movie’s plot as a whole.

The idea isn’t as prolific in video games, perhaps because sexuality is still extremely stigmatized in the medium. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though, and can often feel even more out of place than the more common film version of the trope.

I’ve run across this quite often in visual novels, a genre already heavily inundated with adult games. Many of the VNs I’ve read tell incredible stories with great characters, but for a few minutes out of a 40-hour story, I’ll be presented with images of the characters doing the horizontal tango out of nowhere, with no real lead up or reason for it to occur.

Now, we’re not going to be presented with full-on depictions of sex in games rated under ‘AO’, but an ‘M’ rating still allows for some pushing of the fanservice envelope. Some games wear their fanservice proudly on their sleeves, while others just seem to shove in a few moments of it to fulfil the “obligatory sex scene” idea. The game we’re looking at today, I feel, falls into the latter category.

Developed by Compile Heart and published in the west by Idea Factory International, Mary Skelter: Nightmares was released on September 19th, 2017, exclusively for the Vita.

Swallow People Whole

The Jail – some kind of cross between a large building and a living organism. Some years ago, this Jail suddenly swallowed up a major metropolis, one whose name has been lost to time.

It is within this Jail that our protagonists, Jack and Alice, are held, continuously tortured by creatures called Marchens. That is until one day, when a resistance group from a liberated area of the Jail manages to break them out. As it turns out, Alice is a “Blood Maiden,” a young woman who gains extraordinary power when exposed to Marchen blood. This resistance group has been locating and liberating Blood Maidens from the Jail, in hopes of using them to find a way to escape or destroy it.

Most Compile Heart titles I have played (usually games from the Neptunia series) have had humorous or satirical storylines, so I was expecting to see more of the same here. Much to my surprise, Mary Skelter takes its story seriously, managing to tell a shockingly gripping tale. The game also pulls no punches with its darker atmosphere.

The feel of the plot seems like an improved version of Trillion: God of Destruction, another surprisingly serious Compile Heart game. The game has great characters developed through their interactions with each other, despite the usage of some anime cliches. Their characterization through the eyes of Jack is also very interesting – this is a group of people that have suddenly forced their way into his life, and having grown up in a life of torture and degradation, it’s hard for him to fully trust anybody aside from Alice.

Risk of Corruption

Once out of the story segments, Mary Skelter thrusts you into what seems like a fairly traditional dungeon crawler. You’ll be navigating a series of labyrinths from a first-person perspective, in a quest to find ways to take down the Jail.

Much of the game plays out like you’d expect – exploring hallways to find treasures and new paths, entering into random battles against various creatures, nothing incredibly stand-out. However, there are a couple of twists thrown in to both exploration and battle that make things more interesting than they first appear.

The addition to exploration is more subtle – each character you add to your party has a special skill that can be used to aid navigation. Well, most of them anyways (I still can’t figure out the usage of Thumbelina’s skill to shrink items in your inventory). These options make the usual wandering around a maze a bit more engaging, but it’s really nothing revolutionary.

The unique twists on battle are a bit more extensive. For one, Jack is unable to actually fight. The only things he can do are use items, guard a member of the team, or activate his “Mary Gun” (more on that in a bit). Your team of Blood Maidens are the real fighters, and control more like traditional turn-based JRPG party members (minus the ability to use items themselves). Each of the Blood Maidens can be assigned one of five different jobs unique to them as well, although doing so requires spending the game’s “Blood Crystal” currency, requiring a bit of grinding to accomplish.

Being a Blood Maiden, though, runs the risk of “corruption.” Being exposed to enemy blood eventually drives a Blood Maiden into Massacre mode, where their attack strength is heightened and they gain access to some special skills. Should they have too much corruption at this point, though, they enter “Blood Skelter” mode, gaining immense strength, but also going on a rampage attacking friend and foe alike.

Jack is able to use his aforementioned Mary Gun to control the corruption of the Blood Maidens…but since the gun uses his own blood, he runs the risk of passing out and becoming useless in battle. These systems in conjunction add a layer of risk/reward to battles – use a turn to clean up possible corruption, or use a much needed item instead and risk of a girl going Blood Skelter? Better decide quick, as this game is no cakewalk – difficulty ramps up significantly around the second chapter of the story.

When I first heard about Mary Skelter, it was through an excited fandom happy to hear that the game would not be toned down or censored for western release. This honestly led me to believe that the game would be an uncomfortable fanservice-heavy game like the previously reviewed Dungeon Travelers 2. I can happily say that I was very wrong, but the game does still contain the “obligatory sex scene” idea…not literally, though, there’s no sex going on here.

What there is, though, is an option to make each character more resistant to corruption before entering dungeons. To accomplish this, you’re presented with a full-screen image of your Blood Maiden of choice, covered in blood splotches, and you rub them on the Vita’s screen to get rid of them. Or, if you want, you can rub the girl’s clothing to make it start to vanish. All while the Blood Maiden is making suggestive yelps and moans. For me, this felt like a wholly pointless mechanic that exists solely for titillation. With how difficult the game can get, though, you’ll want every stat boost you can get going into a dungeon, so get ready to rub down some anime girls.

Removing the Fangs

Graphically, Mary Skelter isn’t the most impressive game I’ve played lately. Each dungeon you can explore has a very distinct design, but each of these styles gets quickly repetitive with they way they’re copy/pasted across the massive labyrinths. Running across a convulsing human-like creature in the corner of the Graveyard dungeon was a bit creepy, but seeing it used at least thirty more times across the floors makes it turns it uninteresting.

Character sprites, at least, are much more interesting. Every character, from Jack to the Blood Maidens to random NPCs, receives an attractively designed sprite that matches well with their given personalities. The Blood Maidens specifically have an impressive number of sprites, changing for their various jobs and whether they’re in Massacre or Blood Skelter mode. I do wish they were a bit more expressive, though – every character has a single stance that never moves, and facial expression changes are rare and subtle.

The soundtrack for Mary Skelter is surprisingly understated. For a game featuring a living labyrinth, torture, and characters licking blood off of each other, the tracks that play throughout most of the game are fairly relaxed. Some are composed well, but unfortunately the music also falls into the issue of repetition. Most songs are only a couple of minutes long, including the various dungeon themes. With dungeons taking hours to fully explore and complete, these two-minute loops can become quickly grating.

I would like to praise the voice acting, though. The game does offer dual audio (of which I chose to play in English) and is partially voice acted – various voice clips during battle and exploration, with full voicing during certain scenes. Each and every character is performed well, with the voices and intonation matching character personalities excellently and providing more emotion to the text.

The Belly of the Beast

Overall, while I didn’t go in to the game expecting much, Mary Skelter: Nightmares turned out to be a vastly entertaining dungeon crawler with an unexpectedly deep storyline. The dungeon crawler genre has always been hit-or-miss with me, but this title managed to strike a chord to the point where I was excited to continue playing and exploring.

The game isn’t without its faults, though. The repetitive graphical presentation and soundtrack manage to drag down the joy of exploration a bit, and the rubbing mechanic feels like an unnecessary addition just here to pander to certain crowds. None of these, though, managed to hurt the fun I had playing through this title.

The Vita seems to have become inundated with dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Mary Skelter is one that shouldn’t be overlooked. If you’re raring for a challenge, paired up with a great storyline, this is definitely a title to add to your library.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Idea Factory International for Vita. Screenshots taken by reviewer.