For as long as time has turned and the people caught within have longed to spread their thoughts, there have existed stories. From simple tales of imagination, to life lessons masquerading as something less. A timeless art form that continues to this very day. The downside to this ever present existence, however, is that not all stories reach the same lofty heights and find themselves lost amidst the stream of the middling. Long story short: Not every story is good, even when it attempts to stand on the shoulders of its predecessors.
In the list of places people generally wish to avoid, jail is pretty high on the list. Doubly so if jail is
capitalised and is less of a prison and more of a sentient demon that consumes entire cities and forces torture and trial upon the citizens swept up in the consumption. Such is the life of Jack and Alice, our main duo and entry point into the hideous world just mentioned. Existing in a literal cell within the Jail, these two childhood friends endure their existence by clinging to the hope that they will be free one day. Since the game would be rather disappointing, or amazingly avant garde, if their dream went unanswered, we join Jack and Alice a short while before they are rescued, plucked from their torture by self-proclaimed Blood Maiden, Little Red Riding Hood. Now, I’m sure you can see where this game takes its inspiration, but we’ll focus on that a little later. Regardless, the two are saved and taken to Dawn, humanity’s last bastion within the Jail and the area from where they will launch their escape plan. Speaking of…
The majority of Mary Skelter: Nightmares takes place in a lovely first person perspective as you traipse around a series of dungeons designed by the world’s foremost lover of corners and complexity. Floor after floor you wander, seeking that wonderous “Next” that will call you to a higher plane, ever closer to the bosses of each dungeon. Of course, you could also be like me and seek out every incorrect path possible on purpose, longing to complete each floor map for no reason other than self-satisfaction. If the latter is your prerogative, take solace in knowing that the encounter rate of this game is actually quite reasonable and, barring horrendous luck, you won’t be tearing your hair out making it from point to point. Oddly enough however, this rate seems rather static and items said to boost or lower encounters seemed to make no real difference. Of course frustrating if you really want to avoid battle, a hidden benefit lies in items that boost strength in return for a higher encounter rate, which can essentially be used with reckless abandon. Send those stats sky high.
On the topic of stats, let’s talk battle. As with most dungeon crawlers, combat retains the first person perspective, presenting you with a bevy of foes to stare at. Though their designs are interesting, I will say that after the ninetieth fight, and seventh palette swap, they lose a majority of their lustre. This is especially the case when former mid-bosses become regular encounters later on. Certainly meant to represent the shift in difficulty between each area, it eventually comes to water down each subsequent mid-bosses battle. I mean, your just going to see twenty of them in the next area, what is there to be impressed by? That being said, the titular Nightmares present in each dungeon are unique…and freaking terrifying.
Ever present in each dungeon, Nightmares are unkillable until the end of a dungeon is reached, for story reasons. However, they are able to be encountered. This leads to a frightening game of cat and mouse that removes the map from your HUD, turns the ambient light way down and throws up a counter showing how far away the creature of death currently is. This, you must run until you escape the monster’s range, lest it beat the tar out of you. Getting enough hits in can temporarily stun the beast, though this is really only used when it traps you in one of the dungeons many, many corners. Despite this tense and frightening mechanic, it can take a complete 180 in certain situations. Seeing it once or twice a dungeon? Scary. Seeing it once every two minutes? Frustrating. Like, I want to karate chop my Vita in half, frustrating.
Jumping back to battles, the majority of mechanics within are nothing new. Basic attacks, special skills, defending, escaping, the usual fare. Using items takes a somewhat unique spin in that they are only usable by Jack, who also happens to be the one team member unable to attack. Rather, he exists to keep other team members from entering a negative status mode. Centred around the theme of blood, the aptly named Blood Maidens become empowered when in contact with the (tactfully coloured pink) life juice of the Marchens, monsters who aid the Jail. Too much however, and they enter Blood Skelter, a mode wherein you lose control of them as a character and they attack whoever they want, enemy and ally alike. Should this happen, Jack’s unique ability allows him to use his own calming blood to return them to their senses. It’s basically a creepier version of the confusion status. What’s interesting however, is that a controllable version known as Massacre Mode is accessible if their Blood Gauge is allowed to fill before Corruption takes hold. This is possible by using Jack’s turn in battle to purge said Corruption at the cost of his blood. The downside being that purging too often without taking a turn to rest can stun Jack, what with anemia and all. Still, worst case scenario is that you lose your item dispenser and maybe a Blood Maiden KOs your party…actually, that is pretty bad. So save often.
That in mind, it may behoove you to get to know the Blood Maidens a little between missions, really come to care about their hopes and dreams, learn why they act the way they do and confide in them your own fears and beliefs. Of course, being a Japanese dungeon crawler (with Compile Heart in the mix), this is done by throwing items at the girls until they like you a lot, unlocking Events that culminate in a lewd CG borne from classic acts of accident. Namely, Jack somehow winding up walking in on the girls in various states of undress, or his attempts to avoid injury resulting in them landing on top of him In suggestive positions. After all, how can you truly say you know somebody if you don’t help them bake cookies for their sisters and then walk in on them in the shower?
As far as the story itself goes, the less said, the easier to understand…I think. From the outset, there is clearly a complex narrative underway. With semi-amnesiac characters named after classic children’s literature, a mysterious villain who has plagued generations of freedom fighters and a sentient city that is both the character’s prison and potential method of escape, this is far from a simple tales…and that’s the problem. With a hefty helping of exposition filling the early moments of this game, it takes a little time to get into the swing of things. Not the most egregious example of front loading ever, but a slow entry to be sure. The issues arise after this, when the story never truly flows. Though the social moments (complete with Persona-like music) add some sense of connection to the characters, dialogue is few and far between in dungeons. Even then, the notion that the main characters are not privy to the truth of the world leaves more questions than progression. The late introduction of integral characters also lessens the impact of their thoughts somewhat, having experienced less time with Dawn, yet acting as if they know more than everyone (although that is specifically one girl, to be fair).
Admittedly however, these character nitpicks stem from an overall issue with the plot…or lack thereof. With possibility and doubt existing until the final act, answers are not setting given willingly. There is actually one moment where the characters look at each other and say, “It all makes sense now.” That’s it. It isn’t explained for a while after what actually makes sense and even then it doesn’t. The resolution of self leans heavily on story factors that were never introduced or only vaguely mentioned. Characters with zero impact on anything return out of nowhere and become linchpins to the final moments of the story. And I don’t just mean background characters who don’t say much, I mean characters who are not seen since the prologue, keeping in mind that this is a game that can run you over 30 hours. The villains
true motivation is no better, revolving around an idea that comes completely out of left field…in a story with a sentient prison. So if predictability is something you fear from stories, worry not, there’s no way you’ll see this climax coming.
The best way I can sum up Mary Skelter: Nightmares is this: Christmas lights. Born of a longer running tradition, they are inexplicably linked to the source of their existence. Long strings of practicality, dotted with moments of colour and brightness. This particular example also happens to end in an unholy tangle that severely dampens the mood of whoever stumbles upon it. Just as colourful, of not moreso, it is unable to truly shine until somebody puts in a conceited effort to understand where it all ends. Maybe then it will hang once again and light up the night with joy, but most will not relish the challenge of untangling a mess they never made. Still, at the end of the day, the lights are pretty and taking a step back will help you enjoy it all, regardless of a few dimmed bulbs.
In your Nightmares…