How to renew Dungeon-RPG? In a genre fairly common on handheld due to its low profitability threshold, we might come to think we’ve seen everything. But here comes Compile Heart, determined to bring some changes in a now classic gameplay frame with Mary Skelter Nightmares.
Mary Skelter Nightmares takes place in a town that has slumped 666 meter underground. The cause of this disaster is an eerie tower that has sprouted from nowhere, unleashing countless fiends called Märchen (pronounce merhen) that capture inhabitants and torture them in the dark building. Jack and Alice are two of those prisoners waiting for their turn in anguish, until a young girl member of the local resistance, the Reimei, helps them evade what some already call Jail. After generations struggling to get rid of the Märchen, humans finally got their trump card : the Keshiki Shôjo, girls of unbelievable strength capable of slaughtering Märchen. With Alice, the group is large enough for the resistance to carry out its long-lasting plan : reach the surface through Jail.
Although fragmented (because told between extremely long dungeons), Mary Skelter Nightmares’s narrative felt more interesting than your average Compile Heart plot. Given that the IP gave birth to two novelizations, you’d expect no less. It manages to create a suspense in which every character around you seems suspect. Dialogs also were more interesting than usual since it has a somewhat dark atmosphere full of suspicion that fits the horrible story. You can’t help being disappointed by the ending though, very unsurprising for a scenario that definitively had potential to impress. More than that, the lack of proper epilogue is a huge letdown since the player would expect to learn what happens to the main characters after the end.
Mary Skelter Nightmares being a “girl game” like they say in Japan, the girls are lot more interesting characters than Jack, himself being being a perfect example of weak-minded hero always walked all over by the chicks. A purposeful gap rife in this kind of game and base of most of the fun dialogs. Girls have some eccentric personality that make all the fun : Kaguya is too lazy to ever do anything, Oyayubihime has acute size-complex and Gretel views everything scientifically but has zero common sense.
Like in Makai Shin Trillion, each girl has a friend level that goes up when you offer presents. The system however isn’t as nice as in Makai Shin Trillion in which all presents had bizarre and fun designs/descriptions, whereas here they’re just a small written line. Interface is not as good also. As the cleverest of you might have noticed, every of the main characters represents a fairy tale : Alice for Alice in Wonderland, Shirayukihime is the literal translation of Snow White, etc. Quite a lot of anecdotes will be about that.
But as this is Compile Heart and not Disney, the player has its right to steamy events. At high friend level, the game will provide special illustrations of the heroines, and some aren’t exactly soft. Given Compile’s poor offer recently in that matter, it’s rather satisfying despite the feeble quantity (quite less artworks than usual for the publisher).
But all this is nothing compared the extra-lewd (but not mandatory) mini-game invented by Compile Heart for its newest RPG. It consists in wiping Märchen‘s blood off the heroine’s body by means of Vita’s touchscreen. I’ll spare you the erotic specifics, but it’s clear that Compile’s hardline is back after years of tasteless compromise. Idea Factory International has re-confirmed its intention to leave it is exactly as it is.
Jail is a living being : your actions will impact its needs. Killing monsters feeds it and walk without picking up a fight allows it to sleep. At a certain satisfaction level, the prison will paradoxically grant you a random bonus like a heal, a buff or an increase in probability to meet the wandering merchant, key-person for your equipment and your relationships because he has the exclusivity of 90% of items in the game! Another point is that the dungeons are insanely large : surface is roughly twice or thrice Moero Chronicle for example. Fortunately, the developers had the wonderful idea of setting teleporters at each floor, which makes the progression quite comfy in the end. Progression that will also put your brain to test by various puzzles (blocks to be moved following more or less complex rules, slippery-floor mazes…) and many traps.
But the main innovation in Compile’s latest game is fear and panic. Every dungeon is guarded by a Nightmare, large and hideous creature that can take you by surprise at any moment. The Nightmare is invincible : all you can do is drive it back for a short time, after what it will keep hunting you down in the corridors. You must then run away as fast as possible to lose it, without thinking where you’re actually going. Actually, you can’t, because the mini-map is deactivated automatically at this very moment, increasing the risk to run into a dead end! The Nightmare is vulnerable only after you’ve destroyed one of Jail’s hearts, generally hidden deep into the dungeons. You therefore have to progress during hours in anguish before the final confrontation with the Nightmare.
In terms of gameplay, Mary Skelter Nightmares chooses a job system with various specialties like the Paladin focused on defense, the Blue Mage capable of casting any enemy magic, or the Blood Chemist who regulates the flow of blood in battle. Each job modifies the appearance of the characters with plenty of cool outfits, and we appreciate Nanameda Kei’s design once more in the nicely 2D animated models. The Blood Chemist is the only original job of this game, for it’s at the center of the blood system. Every Märchen beaten spills a certain amount of blood on your team. Once a character receives a certain amount, she’ll switch to Genocide mode, which multiply her power and almost nullifies the MP cost.
But depending on how tainted the blood is, the character is at risk to activate the Blood Skelter Mode, far less desirable state since the ally become uncontrollable while still powerful enough to wipe out her own team in a flash. That’s where Jack comes in : the hero is placed in a supportive role, just like Ion in Moero Chronicle, and will use his own blood to avoid or cure the Blood Skelter Mode. There is a constant risk-management in this because Jack is liable faint depending on which actions you take.
Despite introducing all this new gameplay stuff, Compile’s title fails to use it the best way. For example, many jobs grant skills that can target all enemies on the screen and usually allow you to end the fight within 2 or 3 turns. In the end, you’ll end up doing just that while healing yourself time to time. Jobs felt rather unbalanced, with few of them giving a real advantage. No strategy is really needed, as the item dealer can cover you fairly easily, so it’s nowhere as interesting as Moero Chronicle or Dungeon Travelers 2-2 in terms of pure gameplay. Battles remain shallow from back to front, most bosses not being that hard either.
The only interesting boss fights were the ones taking place on several floors, as you actually need to activate traps to weaken the Nightmare while escaping its assaults and random battles. The flavor of those sequences (only two in the game though) lies in the fact that you can’t open the menu, thus can’t heal yourself between battles, forcing you to get the perfect timing.
It’s obvious that Compile Heart designed Mary Skelter Nightmares to be more accessible than your average D-RPG : you can save anytime, go back to the base anytime without any limitation, characters are fully healed when leveling up and battles aren’t so frequent. Characters keep all skills from previous jobs, and they can change every ten levels, so it makes a party a little bit overpowered at some point. It can be played relatively easily but not with the same enjoyment as more challenging D-RPGs.
Loaded with nice and innovative stuff, Mary Skelter Nightmares paradoxically gives up on hardcore gameplay to let the player enjoy the new stuff without getting demotivated. The introduction of fear and panic elements, a better storyline, splendid design as well as hardcore ecchi stuff make it quite entertaining despite lengthy dungeons. Good but not perfect, Mary Skelter Nightmares is nevertheless Compile’s best offering this year.