Mary Skelter: Nightmares Review
Release Date: September 19th, 2017
Developer: Idea Factory
Platforms: PlayStation Vita
Long time Vita owners and JRPG players know that Idea Factory has always been a big supporter of the PlayStation Vita. For years since its launch they've released a multitude of titles from Hyperdimension Neptunia and their spinoffs, to Strategy RPG titles like Trillion: God of Destruction, Visual Novels like Hakuouki, and dungeon crawlers like MeiQ and now the upcoming Mary Skelter Nightmares. Mary Skelter Nightmares has you adventure with two main protagonists, Jack and Alice, who escape a supernatural concoction called The Jail, which spontaneously came to be one day and began consuming humans via torture, actual ingestion, holding them hostage, and many more tragic and sinister activities that have also caused corruption both inside this living tower as well as the surrounding city. In a sudden attempt, Jack, Alice, and other captives, are visited by Idea Factory's interpretation of Red Riding Hood - a badass Blood Maiden that's working for a group called The Dawn meant to counteract and eventually take down The Jail and all the evil it exudes - who comes to break out mainly Alice, but in turn helps out Jack and a few other survivors as well. The game takes off from here and has you explore dungeons and floors within The Jail to help break out others, find items and resources, and inevitably tear down The Jail and give humanity a second chance.
First-Person Dungeon Crawlers, I feel, tend to receive a mixed reception typically because it's easy to feel like once you've played them once, you've played them all. Etrian Odyssey tends to lead the pack of grid-based crawlers mainly due to the fact that they have a deep story with characters that are easy to connect with, great level design, an easy-to-understand hub world, and a lot more that just make it accessible at a fundamental level while also allowing deep customization and gameplay for the hardcore userbase that wants to delve further into it. There's a lot to love about First-Person Dungeon Crawlers, but it's easy for them to become stale over time unless there's something about the game itself that's truly grabbing you in. Mary Skelter Nightmares does well to grab you in quickly and give the player a lot to love about it, like the extremely dark take on a fairytale world with characters like Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and more that join your party and help you in your quest to rid The Jail with the power of Blood Maidens - their supernatural powerful state, as well as Blood Skelters, that helps to keep themselves and civilians safe through an insane amount of training and strength. It's not currently known how or why they become like this, it's just accepted as natural selection.
The level design is something that should be commended. While the problem with dungeon crawlers is that they obviously, more often than not, take place in dungeons and most tend to look the same with worn down stone, dilapidated structures, and the norm, Mary Skelter Nightmares continues with its dark take on fairytales by exuding that mixed with fear throughout the game through the walls around you. An example being when you begin the title, you'll notice the layout has a very "Alice in Wonderland" aesthetic, and later down the line having a "Nightmare Before Christmas" inspired design. The transition between levels is natural and makes you excited to see what's coming up next, as the change in design also influences what monsters, or Marchens, you'll run into. Enemy design should also be commended, as they don't feel recycled, predictable, or lazy. What impresses me the most is that while Mary Skelter Nightmares isn't necessarily meant to be a horror game first-and-foremost, it undoubtedly has heavy influence from it and does well to make you feel a level of discomfort, which is dramatically aided by the Nightmares - essentially bosses/guards that roam around each level - that creep around The Jail, occasionally making its presence known in a startling manner. Nightmares walk around in real time, so even when you're standing still one could possibly be closing in on you. You'll notice when this begins to happen because the setting around you begins to darken, making it difficult to see. There's a meter at the top of the screen showing the distance between you and the Nightmare, but you're able to create a long enough gap, you'll have escaped from their grasp, making the player able to breathe again and explore somewhat at their leisure. It's typically not recommended to take them head on, especially at the beginning of the game, since they're extremely powerful and have the potential to wipe out the entire party in just a few hits. It's a neat mechanic that adds a level of dread and keeps players on their toes within The Jail, and it helps to ensue that feeling of fear and helplessness further. They even have the ability to arbitrarily show up while you're in the middle of a battle elsewhere if they're close enough. However, despite Nightmares being dangerous, they are able to be defeated if you play your cards right, making them not the biggest dread-inducing mechanic in the game.
Saving. The one thing we can all rely on as gamers when we take a break or maybe just want to load a separate file to continue a different route in a game. The save system has always been a gamer's best friend, but in Mary Skelter Nightmares, even the save system is, well, a nightmare. I'm not entirely sure if this was to further give the sense of dread for Mary Skelter Nightmares - which it already did a great job doing - but save points are very few and far between. With no indication as to where they are on the map, unless you take the time to scour every nook and cranny of a dungeon, you'll most likely run into them on accident. The save points are few and far between, and you're taunted further by having the save option in your main menu, except that it's greyed out. The only time it becomes accessible is if you're standing on top of a save spot - and there's no saving in hubs or between long visual novel segments either to my understanding - so having the option there to begin with seems absolutely useless, as once you step on top of a save point, it'll bring up a button prompt if you would like to save. Having to open up the main menu and go into settings to then save are a bunch of extra tasks that don't need to be there since you're not able to regardless outside of the point. There is no auto-saving, which isn't a make or break thing for me by any means, but the inability to save whenever I would at the very least like, having them spread out to god knows where, and no feature to retry when you die in battle either at the beginning of the battle or at a previous checkpoint, you're destined to load an old save file over again. There were multiple points - MULTIPLE - where I would get heavy into the gameplay and the story, gotten a bunch of XP, items, etc., explored a bunch, and then happen to run into a Nightmare I couldn't do anything about or maybe made a wrong move in a particular battle, and I would die and lose close to an hour of progress. This became increasingly infuriating the more I played.
Again, I was enjoying everything I played, but the nuisance of an incompetent save system - especially for an RPG - truly ruins the overall vibe, investment, and feel of progression. Dungeon crawlers will typically require a lot of grinding at one point in order to advance in a story, and having to put a whole bunch of work into that only for it to get taken away time and time again ultimately feels like a slap in the face, as if the developers are saying, "GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME!". I've played my fair share of first-person dungeon crawlers, so grinding doesn't bother me at all - this is a staple in RPGs in general for me and considering I've been playing them most of my life, I have no problem with this - but having this level of punishment only because I haven't been able to save - a system that doesn't necessarily have to do anything with my inability to fight or lack of power in my characters - gives this sense of "see how far you can go and start over again if you die" like old arcade games would do. Again, this is fine when the game is advertised as such and warrants it, but considering Mary Skelter Nightmares has a deep story and gameplay elements and is a JRPG to boot, a seemingly 20-30 hour game can easily get turned into 100+ hours (which is not a hyperbole), due to the constant restarts and deleted progress. Artificially prolonging the game this way does not make the game fun or engaging, it just becomes a constant chore to do the same thing over and over, even if you're successful time and time again, not because you weren't prepared, but because the ability to save your progress is a boss fight in itself.
All in all, Mary Skelter Nightmares has a lot of great ideas and is a straightforward take on first-person dungeon crawlers, delivering a great setting, level and character design, gameplay, and management that's easy to understand and pick up. The issue in all of this, however, is that it's easy to get invested into it because of the engaging and curious story it has, and there are going to be some very unfortunate times where, thanks to a horrendous save system that's put into place with no checkpoints, retries, auto-saving, and actual save spots being few and far between, progress is easily lost and it shouldn't come as a surprise when you find yourself doing the last hour over again hoping to make a little more progress this time around without doing it over yet again and having this recurring sense of déjà vu. Everything from items gained, text you've gone through, and everything the game requires you to do (since it's linear), will have to be done over again with no means of skipping it. It's frustrating, and typically with games like this where they're usually 30-50 hours long at a MINIMUM, it feels like a huge slap in the face to make all your work and management be all for nothing. Idea Factory's signature "arbitrarily pause and explain the controls and mechanics in a PowerPoint-like fashion" tutorial is still here, but is a little more upfront and only a few sentences long rather than the pages and pages of redundancy their games usually force upon the player, so it gives more room to breathe and a chance to get back to the gameplay in a quicker fashion without losing too much momentum. The horror elements are nice and aren't too over the top or forced, making the Nightmares just the right amount of creepy to give you proper jumps and discomfort as they get closer to you. It's a game that feels whole and new, not to mention fresh, and undoubtedly sticks out in the realm of dungeon RPGs which lately have been plagued by generic characters, settings, and gameplay. For the most hardcore of dungeon RPG enthusiasts, Mary Skelter Nightmares will give an unforgettable game worth picking up and playing, but the incompetent save system and lack of progression may deter quite a few players that may be on the fence, in which at that point I would say wait for a sale on the PSN. It's a game worth picking up at some point and playing, but it's not something you absolutely need to have right away unless you're salivating for a new dungeon RPG and can't wait for Etrian Odyssey V on 3DS later this year.
- Dungeon design is really nice and tells a story on its own, making The Jail eerily lively.
- Characters, setting, story, and UI are all solid. The game is optimized really well for the Vita.
- The art is really fantastic (arguably some of Idea Factory's best outside of Hakuouki), especially the backdrops for the game while out of a dungeon. Beautiful to look at and would make great wallpapers. Couldn't help but take a multitude of screenshots!
- Save spots are so few and far between it's easy to lose an hour or more of progress when you die, including any items or EXP that were gained in the interim.
- The map takes up a large portion of the Vita and can even be in the middle of the screen if you choose, but it's hard to see anything in this state. Map is distracting and in the way, and empty more often than not until you fill it up.
Thank you to Idea Factory for sending us a copy for review.