By design, jails aren’t meant to be pleasant places for anyone to live, or even visit for that matter. The hospitality of each lockup varies from location, and while they may range from extremely hardcore eastern European where seven years is considered a death sentence, to Club Med joints that make the prison on Arrested Development look like hard time, spending any amount of time in jail is time poorly spent (although the story of how you ended up there could be quite exciting). Mary Skelter: Nightmares goes beyond what is capable in reality by placing its characters inside of a living prison called Jail where cruel and unusual punishment is the usual.
Jail is a mysterious otherworldly hell on Earth type of environment that appeared many years before the game began. The hero and heroine of the story, Jack and Alice, have just endured another round of torment for the day when Red Riding Hood appears to bust them out. Red Riding Hood is a member of some group called the Dawn, and she is trying to usher our heroes to the small refuge they’ve built up called the Liberated District. Of course rescuing Jack and Alice isn’t entirely altruistic as both Red Riding Hood and Alice are blood maidens, and Jack kind of hitched his way out of Jail since his blood somehow has a pacifying effect when Alice enters a frenzied state of Blood Skelter.
The story of Mary Skelter: Nightmares begins simple enough with the trio of Jack, Alice and Red Riding Hood but there is an assortment of odd NPCs hanging out in the Liberated District that assist with progressing through the story. Other blood maidens join the party too with names like Snow White and Thumbelina, so there is a running theme of taking names of children’s fairy tale characters and twisting them into some dark version of themselves, but oddly enough it makes sense for this title, and with Halloween right around the corner this seems like a good time for launch. Each of the blood maidens does have a unique blood ability that can be used while exploring the Jail, such as an ability to knock down barriers.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is not a game that hits the ground running. During the review, I found it rather boring, and it was mostly the fact I tend to enjoy Compile Heart games (and a certain obligation of a reviewer to actually play the game) that kept me going but my tenacity was rewarded since this title did end up becoming enjoyable. Like a lot of a Compile Heart games, the barrage of cutscenes and tutorial is relentless at the beginning, and while they never quite go away they do become much more tolerable later on. The layers of Mary Skelter: Nightmares are gradually introduced to the player, so the game becomes more enjoyable the more time I spent with it. Or maybe that’s just Stockholm Syndrome.
The Jail itself is an interesting choice for a game environment. It is a living entity, and this can be seen by having living tissue incorporated into its design. The Jail has five desires that must be satisfied, Hunger, Libido, and Lust, and depending on having these conditions met can lead to a roulette wheel appearing to grant some sort of bonus to the player. Within the Jails are regular peon monsters that can be bested in combat with the blood maidens’ weapons, but every now and then a Nightmare shows up, which is a very powerful demon that can only be defeated once certain conditions are met, meaning it’s best to run away when it shows up. The Nightmares are one of the most disturbing looking creatures that one can encounter inside the Jail.
The blood maidens are the powerhouses in the turn based battle system. They gain power by having the blood of their slain enemies splatter on them and fill up a blood meter. When the blood meter is full they enter into a massacre state and get temporary stat increases to their damage output. If a blood maiden is getting low on health, she can lick the other maiden if her blood meter is sufficiently filled and gain a bonus or recover some health, but doing so resets the lickee’s blood meter. Jack is the least heroic hero, he cannot even attack enemies in battle. He can use items or remove corruption from the blood maidens when their blood gets too tainted, because once the corruption level reaches critical they enter a state of Blood Skelter, and that tainted blood will take all that boy Jack can give them. Jack can also defend a blood maiden from attack but typically that is good for one hit and then he’s stunned for a few turns. Jack is at least useful at lessening the damage to the blood maidens and keeping them from entering Blood Skelter state. Compile Heart has a bit of a reputation for reducing the clothing of their female characters, so this is an odd twist where if the blood maiden reaches her nearly nude Blood Skelter state that pretty much will punish the player with a game over.
Characters raise levels through the traditional means of gaining experience points and collecting gold, items and crafting materials. Each character has a set of different skills they can learn and level up for skill points when they acquire them, and some of them are essential and others are pretty useless. There are several different crystal types that can be acquired in Jail to upgrade weapons and armor but certain types you pretty much trip over while other’s are incredibly rare. To add customization to the party, there is a job system with five main job types, Fighter, Libero, Scientist, Magician and Archer, but this system was designed with an emphasis of simplicity and accessibility over creating a really great custom character class.
Inside the living quarters of the Liberated District, Jack and each blood maiden have their own room. Jack can increase each maiden’s level of affection toward him by buying them gifts or doing some interior decorating of each room. This isn’t so much as a challenge as it is a grind to amass all the necessary items or currency to purchase them. It is a way to add a superficial level of depth to the game, though it’s not a significant portion of interest except for completionists.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a blend of first person dungeon crawling, first person turn-based combat from random encounters and cutscenes where the characters explain what is going on. Difficulty levels can spike drastically when traveling to new zones or even new floors so it is important to save often. Inside the various locations saving is only allowed at very scarcely scattered save points, unless Alice is in the party and can use her Rabbit Hole ability which can create an instant save point inside the Jail. This is a great feature, but it doesn’t help you that much when Alice isn’t in the party and with no auto-save function it is easy to lose an hour of gameplay. On the plus side, it is possible to fast forward through cutscenes if you have to sit through them a second time due to a game over.
Compile Heart games, at least in personal experience, have generally featured good music and Mary Skelter: Nightmares is no exception. From the customary Compile Heart start up music video to the carnival theme music of the first part of the jail to the morose tones of the cemetery, the music that accompanies this warped adventure is quite enjoyable to listen to. Visually this is what one would expect from a Compile Heart game, though the particular aesthetic they went for with this title looks more polished than some of their previous titles. The story is intriguing, and the idea of quasi vampiric heroines carting around a guy who is useless in combat but a functional field medic is a nice take on the typical RPG party system. The story unfortunately never reaches true greatness but is enjoyable nonetheless.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares provides an enjoyable dungeon crawling RPG where fans of Compile Hearts’ previous games will gladly lose themselves in the living hell known as Jail. The overall experience has a lot of residual DNA from Meiq inside but this feels more refined and mature, both in aesthetic and game mechanics. A lot of tropes common to their titles including the risque humor is of course present but that’s also been part of the appeal of their titles. While it won’t blow anyone away, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a well put together, enjoyable experience and a worthy addition to any dungeon crawler RPG fan’s collection.