Mary Skelter: Nightmares is the latest IP from developer Compile Heart, who are increasingly looking to pad out their unique IP, and this one is a first-person dungeon-crawling RPG with characters inspired by famous fairy tales. It’s bloody and has some genuinely creepy enemies, but overall it’s easy to see that it’s still very much a Compile Heart title.
Nightmares follows Jack and Alice, two humans trapped in the living “Jail” where they’re being experimented on, when Little Red Riding Hood appears with plans to take Alice away. Refusing to leave Jack behind, the three fight to rescue other prisoners and to finally make their way out of the terrible Jail. It turns out Alice and a bunch of other girls have special abilities which can be used to fight the creatures found in Jail, and they work together with Alice’s father to hone their powers as Blood Maiden’s and escape. I dig the atmosphere and aesthetic, and as a big fan of fairy tales I enjoyed this fresh take on well-known characters. I generally don’t go for first-person dungeon-crawlers, but I didn’t want to miss out on this one.
You control Jack in the dungeon but, as a male, he has no special abilities of his own, so instead he provides support for the Blood Maidens as they use their powers to crush whatever gets in their way. Jack can shield Blood Maidens from an incoming attack, and use his Mary Gun to shoot the Maidens with his blood. Pretty gross, right? Jack’s blood purifies the girls and pulls them out of their corrupted state, which occurs when the girls come into contact with too much enemy blood. When they’ve been covered in enough blood, they’ll become wild and attack without discretion, and only Jack can rescue them.
Jack has a few tricks up his sleeve and you’re able to let the girls go into Massacre mode, or let them lick the blood from one another to activate a different set of skills known as Blood Soul skills which can buff you and recover lost health. Massacre mode is great, but you want to avoid the manic Blood Skelter mode — it might save you in a pinch though, or it might be the reason you fail. The Blood Maiden’s otherwise have standard skills such as attack, and unique skills that they’ll learn with experience. It sounds like a lot to wrap your head around, but it’s much clearer in action.
Have you played Etrian Odyssey? If so, you’ll be familiar with its F.O.E system where giant foes patrol an area and getting into a battle with them is bad news. Nightmares has a similar system where certain enemies, known as Marchens, cannot be killed, but only temporarily defeated in battle. You’ll see these on the map as you’re exploring, and when you’re close to one you’ll be shown a moving number which indicates if it’s nearby or not — if it is, run to an area which it doesn’t patrol! There are also Giant Nightmares which you’ll come into contact with, and you’ll need to progress through a dungeon whilst fighting its various body parts until you can fully defeat it.
Nightmares is an unsettling game. The enemy designs, particularly those of the Giant Nightmares and the Marchens, are eerie and disgusting. I was filled with apprehension and excitement to see what the next nightmare would be, and Compile Heart have created some truly grotesque beings. The abnormal environments are equally as bizarre. Lovely character designs manage to bring some sanity back to Nightmares, although I wish they borrowed from the characters they’re named after a little more. It all has a wonderfully twisted fairy-tale vibe to it, and I found a lot to feast my eyes on as someone who really digs this sort of aesthetic.
You can play in both English and Japanese, although not many lines are fully voiced in the English dub. That aside, it’s a strong dub but if you’re a stickler for voice-acting, then you might prefer the Japanese voice-over. The soundtrack incorporates a lot of violin, which is fantastic, mixed with piano, electric guitar and a bunch of orchestral instruments. I’m a sucker for orchestral music, and Nightmares‘ OST does not disappoint. What’s a shame is that the soundtrack isn’t easy to purchase! This also fits in well with the twisted fairy-tale vibes the game has, and I found myself hugely enjoying the OST.
I’ve not enjoyed all of Compile Heart’s newer IPs, but Mary Skelter: Nightmares is one of their strongest efforts to date. An intriguing story, likeable – if not a little tropey – characters, engaging gameplay mechanics and an outstanding aesthetic and matching OST helped to make this a blast to play. Sony may not be supporting the Vita anymore, but games like Mary Skelter: Nightmares prove that the system is far from dead.