Based on some of Compile Heart’s previous games we weren’t expecting a lot from Mary Skelter: Nightmares - just a simple dungeon crawler with a bit of fanservice thrown in. What we actually got, however, was something far more interesting. The opening to Mary Skelter is surprisingly dark. The game’s protagonist Jack and his childhood friend Alice are trapped within a jail and only allowed out of their cell for their daily dose of torture. It’s a grim place with monsters serving as prison guards and the wailing sounds of despair from fellow prisoners echoing throughout.
Thankfully Jack and Alice’s tale doesn’t end in this depressing place. Instead the two of them manage to escape when a 'Blood Maiden' named Red Riding Hood breaks them out after claiming that Alice is also a so-called Blood Maiden. First-person dungeon crawlers aren’t exactly known for their interesting storylines so it’s a pleasant surprise to see just how enthralling Mary Skelter’s story is. The jail is a living object which appeared many years ago, sinking the city deep below the surface and trapping all of its residents. Some of the residents have formed a resistance group with the aim of one day escaping the tower and returning to the world above.
The atmosphere of the world is what really helps make Mary Skelter feel different and unique. Wander through its dungeons and you’ll constantly be reminded that this place is alive, with eyes embedded into the walls and veiny looking organs protruding out. If you’ve played any kind of dungeon crawler before then many of the gimmicks within will feel familiar to you; uncovering a map one square at a time while avoiding spike pits and grabbing any lever or switch you can get your grubby little hands on. The levels are well designed with plenty of traps and secret paths as well as engaging puzzles to solve. At times the sheer size of each floor can feel tiresome but thankfully you can save at pretty much any point if you need a break.
Jack and Alice join the resistance group as fighters and there are a whole bevy of beautiful maidens to get to know, from the aforementioned Red Riding Hood to other adorable heroines such as Sleeping Beauty and Thumbelina. The reason why these ladies are so special (apart from their fairytale inspired names and personalities) is that they have powerful abilities and draw strength from monster blood. As they fight they get splattered with blood which fills up each character’s blood gauge, and when full, that maiden will enter Massacre mode which increases their stats and gives them access to new skills.
Of course this is monster blood that's being thrown about, so it’s not all good effects. If the ladies take lots of damage this gauge can become corrupted and begin to turn black. If the gauge fills completely while corrupted, they'll enter Blood Skelter mode which makes them turn insane, attacking both friend and enemy alike. You can delay a character from entering into Massacre or Blood Skelter mode by getting the girls to lick the blood off of one another, which has the added benefit of casting some form of restorative magic.
It’s definitely a unique (and kind of gross) battle system, which only gets weirder when you hear about Jack’s role within it. Jack is not a Blood Maiden so can’t fight monsters directly, but his blood has a unique and very useful property. By using a special gun to spray his blood over the maidens, he can remove the corruption from them, or if the maiden has already gone berserk, then his blood will calm them down. Using too much blood can cause Jack to faint, puting him out of action for a couple of turns.
It’s a battle system that needs you to constantly think ahead and plan your strategy. If you’re not prepared then the game can be pretty tough, especially when it comes to the boss fights. The bosses, known as Nightmares, roam around the dungeons, and unless you’ve destroyed a dungeon’s core, these beasts are invincible with your only option being to run away. You’ll know when one is close as the lighting will dim and the minimap will vanish. There’s a real sense of panic when one appears - you’ll be running through darkened corridors and it’s really easy to accidentally end up down a dead end, and even when the Nightmares are weakened by destroying their dungeon core they still aren’t easy to defeat. Thankfully, you can adjust the difficulty at any time in the options menu.
When you’re not exploring dungeons and fighting Nightmares you can head back to the Liberated District where you can indulge in activities like giving gifts to your favourite maidens and customising their rooms. You can also head to the Laboratory to change their job classes, which gives them new skills as well as a change of outfit. You can also pick up side quests and take part in a slightly risqué minigame which involves ‘purifying’ the maidens by rubbing some of Jack’s blood into their skin and rubbing away some of their clothes. If you’re not into that kind of thing then note that you only need to do this once for each character, after which you can skip the minigame but still obtain the temporary status buff from it.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares has some really interesting features and an impressively dark atmosphere. While a lot of the mechanics within the dungeons will feel familiar to genre fans, the levels themselves are very well crafted. There’s also a unique battle system to master and the random element of Nightmares chasing you down dark corridors will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.