Mary Skelter: Nightmares Review (Switch)
Most people would prefer to keep themselves out of prison – but what if you had no choice? Mary Skelter: Nightmares, a first-person dungeon crawler (or DRPG) by Compile Heart and Idea Factory, forces this situation upon the player right out of the gate, though its depiction of a jail is anything but ordinary. How does this remake of the 2017 Vita title of the same name fare in the already impressive realm of Switch dungeon crawlers? Let’s find out!
Mary Skelter: Nightmares takes place in a once sprawling Japanese city which has, in recent decades (or perhaps centuries), fallen into complete ruin. Years ago, this city with a name lost to time was bizarrely reduced to nothing but a crater. Perhaps unbeknownst to those outside the crater, however, were survivors of the old city deep within this chasm. One should use the term “surviving” loosely, as these citizens are tortured day and night by otherworldly beings known as “Marchens.” Worse yet, this bleak existence takes place in a living, breathing, terrifying organism known as Jail, which seemingly evolves and changes with the ebb and flow of time.
Players begin Mary Skelter: Nightmares with Alice and Jack, two childhood friends who are not only about to be freed from their bondage, but will ultimately find out that they’re far more special than they realized. Alice is a Blood Maiden, a lady with a unique ability to actually push back and defeat Marchens, growing ever-stronger as she’s spattered with the blood of her enemies.
This power is a double-edged sword, though, as Alice will reach a tipping point of blood exposure and react in one of two ways: a Massacre mode that enhances all her powers, or a highly volatile and dangerous trance known as Blood Skelter, which throws the Blood Maiden into an uncontrollable rage that can only be stopped through death. Fortunately for Alice, Jack soon realizes his own blood has restorative properties when used upon Blood Maidens, safely reverting their Blood Skelter state while removing all impurities from their blood. This comes at an obvious cost, as Jack is literally using a portion of his own life to save others.
The duo come to their realizations after being rescued by none other than Red Riding Hood, who is also a Blood Maiden. Fascinated by this new discovery, and believing Jack’s puritave properties may be just what is needed to escape the Jail once and for all, the trio set out to rendezvous with the Dawn, a group of survivors dedicated to besting the Jail once and for all. But the Dawn attempted this same thing just 15 years ago and was ultimately unsuccessful – will this time be any different? Can the Dawn even be trusted, and what about their cultish, religious subsect known as the Order of the Sun?
For a DRPG, Mary Skelter: Nightmares boasts a very impressive premise that remains compelling through the adventure. It is supported by an eclectic cast of characters straight out of various fairy tales and folklore. While a bit groan-worthy at first, it’s soon revealed that there are new, additional layers to these familiar characters that many have come to know and love, and there’s ultimately a reason behind their real, tangible existence in the first place.
While a completely original cast may have been better, Mary Skelter: Nightmares handles these iconic characters pretty well with a few exceptions. Players may resent Jack early on because his every thought is shown to the player, and he sort of comes across as a whiny and attention starved kid until later developments. Sleeping Beauty is also pretty dull because she’s more or less asleep the whole time in order to stay “in character” (why not choose a different fairytale character instead?). The only other narrative-centric complaint boils down to a bit of “dialogue bloat” once the roster is fully fleshed out, as virtually every situation has each character giving their two cents even if it is of little to no value to the player or the narrative at large. It takes many hours to reach this point though, and by then the game is beginning to wrap up anyway.
Overall, the game’s narrative is well done, and there are multiple endings for those that like that sort of thing. Their requirements, however, can be a bit strange. While the bad and good endings are relatively straightforward (despite a couple oddities), the “true” ending, which supposedly properly sets up for the third entry, Mary Skelter Finale, requires getting the true ending in Mary Skelter 2 first, then completing a postgame dungeon and all the good ending prerequisites as well. Word on the street suggests completing the original Mary Skelter: Nightmares, Mary Skelter 2, then the new Mary Skelter: Nightmares for the most authentic experience. Regardless, this particular adventure – out of sequence or not – still feels whole.
Mary Skelter: Nightmares is a first-person dungeon crawler that utilizes real-time dungeon traversal and turn-based / action hybrid combat. For the vast majority of time, the player will dive into various dungeons within the Jail in order to destroy their cores and defeat their Nightmares – terrifying, immortal beings that can only be killed after their associated dungeon core is destroyed. Dungeon cores are key to stimulating growth within the Jail tower, which will serve as a means for the Dawn to escape (growing higher to reach the surface).
The vanquishing of Nightmares isn’t quite as useful as Core destruction, but is equally important, as these fiends will forever haunt the halls of their dungeons until they are killed. This is easier said than done, as the player will undoubtedly have many run-ins with each dungeon’s Nightmare well before they are capable of taking them head on, let alone destroying the core and removing their immortality. A Nightmare can be heard and occasionally seen in a dungeon, but if the player gets within a certain distance to them, a chase will ensue.
Players then must put enough distance between themselves and the Nightmare in order for the chase to end. This can be particularly challenging on normal difficulty and higher because the minimap disappears during a chase, leaving the player to make their way through a dungeon completely on their own. Due to the random nature of a Nightmare’s appearance, and the corridor-based layout of the maps, retreat isn’t always an option. Instead, a battle with the Nightmare can be initiated.
While a Nightmare with its core intact cannot be killed, it can be temporarily stunned if the player destroys one of its many parts in combat, which will then allow the player to step over the nightmare and attempt another escape. Nightmares and their associated mechanics freshen the DRPG formula up nicely and ensure that players keep their wits about them at all times. Not only that, but the final showdown with each Nightmare (save for maybe the first one) culminates into some of the most thrilling and occasionally frustrating encounters in the game for two big reasons: they can act multiple times in a row, and can even skip ahead in the turn timeline. Nightmares, indeed.
Although Mary Skelter: Nightmares primarily features turn-based combat, with an order timeline shown, Nightmare encounters are the exception to the rule with their turn-skipping capabilities. What this means is that players that take too much time with decisions in combat can theoretically give a Nightmare the chance to act every other turn, which is an easy street to a game over. Nightmares pull no punches on normal, and are certain to be literal nightmares on the hardest difficulty.
While difficulty is subjective, research suggests that this version of Mary Skelter: Nightmares has been tuned far more in favor of difficulty in general compared to the original, which was considered by many to be one of the easiest modern DRPGs available. While this may be true, it is also insanely uneven, with severe highs and lows in the general difficulty along the way. That said, the vast majority of standard encounters can still be cleared with little to no effort on normal, but even then some of them can be dangerous when ambushing the player’s party unexpectedly. For those totally uninterested in potential roadblocks, an easy mode is also available that is more or less a “story mode” that offers very little pushback.
Jack’s aforementioned unique blood also plays a big role in combat. While he provides very little self use offensively, he is integral to keeping the Blood Maidens from going into Blood Skelter. During his turns, a certain percentage of blood can be used to purify a Maiden’s corruption, vastly reducing the chances of them going berserk. And even if the unfortunate does happen, Jack can get a Blood Maiden out of Blood Skelter, though he will be knocked out for several rounds as a result. Jack must balance his blood reserves while meeting the needs of the Blood Maidens, as every ounce he uses makes him more vulnerable to a KO. Fortunately, he can opt to charge some blood each turn as well.
Beyond the use of Jack’s own blood, the blood of defeated Marchens is also integral to combat. Besides entering Massacre or Blood Skelter upon full blood, Blood Maidens also provide unique abilities that can be used in exchange for their current Marchen blood reserves. By, uh, licking one another, Blood Maidens can restore and regenerate health and receive various buffs for a short time. Blood Maidens accrue this blood through exploiting enemy weaknesses and performing critical hits, among other things, and said blood will slowly become corrupt (eventually leading to Blood Skelter) as each Blood Maiden takes damage. All in all, despite appearing like traditional turn-based combat on the surface, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is anything but traditional and is far better for it.
Dungeon exploration, on the other hand, is fairly straightforward at the ground level but does have a bit of spice added to it. Besides avoiding Nightmares, Mary Skelter: Nightmares features some very basic puzzle solving and traversal gimmicks that are circumvented via each Blood Maiden’s unique Blood Ability, which serves as various dungeon diving tools. For example, Snow White can bomb cracked walls while Sleeping Beauty can shoot arrows at far away objects, both of which can open up new areas and avenues for treasure. Mary’s Blood Ability is perhaps the most unique and useful though, as she can create a “rabbit hole” that not only acts as a save point, but also doubles as an immediate escape route out of a dungeon.
As a living, breathing organism, the Jail and its interconnected dungeons also have desires of their own. As the player progresses through a dungeon and performs various feats, the Jail’s desires – hunger, libido, and sleep – will be slowly filled up. When any of these desires are met, the player can spin a Jail Roulette that provides various bonuses and rewards, some of which can be immensely useful in certain situations. These desires can be filled in combat as well, allowing access to potentially useful player buffs, enemy debuffs, and even enhancements to rewards upon combat completion (like EXP bonuses).
Jail Roulettes can somewhat be manipulated via a separate module, Jail Control, but this is automated by default and can be ignored entirely. The actual roulette selection can also be completely automated for those that would rather not be bothered by them (they do increase the time spent in dungeons). Finally, dungeon difficulty can be tuned via Jail Trials, which allow the player to add restrictions to that specific dungeon for increased rewards. One of the most useful trials is turning off saving in dungeons, granting a massive 30% increase to EXP in return. Jail Trials, like Jail Control and Roulettes, are completely optional (or, for the latter, can at least be automated), leaving the player with an impressive amount of flexibility over their dungeon diving experience.
These player choices ultimately lead to what I appreciate most about the dungeon design of Mary Skelter: Nightmares, that being its respect for the player’s time. Every dungeon has multiple floors, but convenient shortcuts can be unlocked with every ascended floor. This version of the game also features extremely detailed maps and useful quality-of-life features, such as auto-pilot and frameskipping functions. Dungeons also scale in terms of length and difficulty quite naturally outside of a couple of annoying outliers.
Outside of that, dungeons are quite enjoyable – well, besides the diablo-esque loot system working against itself. Armor can roll with random modifiers in addition to their base stats and modifiers, opening up lots of options and situationally useful equipment for each Blood Maiden. The problem lies in quickly and accurately comparing any two pieces of gearing – more or less impossible in its current form. Items with unique rolls have seemingly nonsensical short prefixes added to their names, and the additional non-stat modifiers themselves, like “reduced physical damage” are hard to gauge compared to, say, pure increases in the defense stat.
Not only that, but unique damage reduction modifiers in general are far too plentiful, begging the question of the difference between “elemental” damage and “magic” damage, as well as “physical” damage and just “damage.” More descriptive prefixes and/or suffixes, as well better descriptions of modifiers in general would have gone a long way into making all the variety of components far easier pill to swallow.
As it stands, players will often have to sift through dozens, if not hundreds of pieces of gear at a snail’s pace in order to find what best suits their needs. Funnily enough, the best equipment isn’t generally found in treasure chests around dungeons, but instead bought from the traveling merchant in dungeons, or from the corpses of enemies. Treasure chests are very hit or miss in Mary Skelter: Nightmares, as their contents are almost always randomized, leading to very few exciting discoveries.
Dawn: The Home Base
When not working on the Jail escape masterplan, the player can take a load off at Dawn HQ, which is likely the only bastion of safety within the entirety of Jail. From here, main and side stories can be witnessed and requested, weapons and armor can be upgraded, items can be purchased, Blood Maiden classes can be unlocked, changed, and Devoluted, and each Maiden can be interacted with in either their bedrooms or the anti-corruption chambers. The latter two activities are the probably the worst features the game has to offer, as one is gated behind an immensely grindy affection system (that doubles as a means to get every single character-specific “ending”), the other only catering to a very specific audience.
While Jack can cleanse a Blood Maiden’s corruption in combat, he can also perform a “private” cleansing at Dawn HQ that, upon completion, will provide temporary stat bonuses to that specific Blood Maiden. With each Blood Maiden wearing skimpy suits and posing provocatively, Jack can rub every inch of them to give them a, shall we say, “proper” cleansing. While I’m personally not a fan of these things in gaming, I am all for providing fan service for those that enjoy it. That said, I do not like the fact that a temporary stat boost is provided through this minigame, and the mechanics themselves don’t play well at all on a controller (but are fine in handheld mode).
Each Blood Maiden has access to a half dozen or so unique classes, though some of these are shared across multiple Maidens (both Alice and Cinderella can become Marshals, for example). Active abilities learned from each class can be used regardless of the current class with the exception of class-specific passives. Changing from one class to another will affect a Blood Maiden’s stats, but does not affect base stat growth whatsoever which is normalized across the board.
A single job can be permanently unlocked after every 10 character levels any given Blood Maiden gains, granted the player also has a certain number of blood crystals on hand. This is purposely designed to take time and be restrictive at first so that characters don’t get too powerful and flexible too early on. By the end, each Blood Maiden will easily have enough resources to unlock each and every class, but they will not be able to master every single ability without Devolution.
Devolution is a de-leveling system not so different from other DRPGs or the Disgaea series, and is essential in making the most powerful characters. By spending a hefty amount of blood crystals, a Blood Maiden’s level can be reduced in order to reset skill points (or SP), as well as acquire bonus SP and stats. The caveat is that the Blood Maiden must gain those lost levels back, which can certainly be a time investment. While completely optional and likely unnecessary on lower difficulties, it is sure to be a boon on higher difficulties.
Aesthetically speaking, while very little seems to have changed from the original Vita Mary Skelter: Nightmares to this remake, there are a few noteworthy changes. To its benefit, the resolution seems a bit sharper and more detailed in the Switch version, and runs at a silky smooth framerate the vast majority of the time (the original doesn’t seem bad, but certainly did not fare as well). One “enhancement” that actually seems to be detrimental, however, is the reduced fog distance.
This allows the player to see a bit further in the distance, but certain assets still pop in and out due to not being adjusted with the fog change. Also, less fog in general removes a bit of the mystery and danger surrounding these hellish labyrinths, where a dense layer of fog could certainly be expected. Not only that, but the 3D environments naturally aren’t the most amazing technological feats considering they were originally built with a now antiquated console in mind. Regardless, the 3D graphics still have their moments, and each dungeon within the Jail has its own distinct theme and style to help keep things fresh.
The character portraits and environmental art, however, are a bit more impressive than the 3D environments. The portraits themselves are semi-animated, complete with blinking eyes and hair flowing about to faux environmental effects, but stay relatively static other than when different emotions are conveyed. An equal – if not greater – amount of effort was placed in the previously mentioned corruption cleansing activity, with associated rubbing physics that are sure to satisfy those that, uh, like that sort of thing? What feels like it received the bulk of the aesthetical budget, however, is the soundtrack, which is as thematically diverse as it is relevant to all the wacky, wondrous dungeons within the Jail. Despite some drawbacks, the presentation is sound.
Despite a few oddities, Mary Skelter: Nightmares is easily one of the better DRPGs on the Nintendo Switch, and it’s only half of the Mary Skelter 2 package. For $40USD, there are two games and A LOT of dungeon crawling to be had, and the inclusion of a “true ending” in this version that supposedly leads right up to Mary Skelter Finale is nice (if a bit demanding in terms of requirements). Although it may not be considered best to begin with Mary Skelter: Nightmares given the new additions – I’m still a bit perplexed by this, to be honest – it nonetheless builds a strong foundation for what I imagine is only improved upon in Mary Skelter 2 and beyond.