Oh boy oh boy! Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with niche JRPGs, especially those from Compile Heart. I’ve always loved the gameplay, design, writing and overall concepts of their titles; from the constantly evolving Neptunia series to the innuendo-filled celebration of the saucy that we call Moe Chronicle. My big issue, however, has always been the obnoxious amount of fan-service commonly pushed onto the player. No, Moe Chronicle, I don’t want to rub your excellently designed characters or put them in less interesting (and skimpier) clothing. You could argue that maybe these games just aren’t for me, but every single one I’ve played has had legitimately compelling gameplay which I’ve wanted to keep playing.
Luckily, their latest western release may just be what I’ve been looking for.
Released in 2018 to Japanese PS4 owners, Mary Skelter 2 is a very interesting beast; similar to Moe Chronicles in many ways, but with so much more depth and class. The sequel to 2016’s Vita-exclusive Mary Skelter Nightmares, this new entry showcases an alternate timeline to the original yet contains many of the original characters and a few new standouts.
The concept is a novel one. A number of years ago a huge chunk of a Tokyo-esque city crumbled deep into the ground (666 metres…) and was transformed into the Jail; a living prison which feeds on those trapped within in. Shortly after, it became infested with monsters; the smaller Marchen and the near-invincible Nightmares. You play as the Blood Maidens – variant humans who gain incredible powers when exposed to Marchen Blood – and control them on their quest to save as many lives as possible and to escape from the Jail.
This may not sound all that compelling until you realise that the Jail, the Blood Maidens and a number of other elements all draw inspiration from popular fairy tales and use them to great effect. The initial section puts you in control of Otsuu – the protagonist – and her friends Little Mermaid and Red Riding Hood as you search for another Blood Maiden. From the start, it’s easy to find the many references to popular tales and this makes it really interesting to explore these areas and fight the creatures inhabiting them. The first area’s beautiful Alice in Wonderland imagery really set the tone well with the iconic playing-card symbols covering the walls and card-soldiers barring your path. Enemies in this area included ghosts dressed as the Mad Hatter and horrific Cheshire Cats. Granted, we’ve seen twisted takes on Alice in Wonderland before, but Mary Skelter’s attempt is just as well executed and doesn’t attempt to carry the whole game; using other tales and ideas as inspiration in subsequent areas. The plot revolves around this central concept of exploring the many dungeons of the Jail and rescuing Blood Maidens to fill out your team, but tacks a few extra elements on to differentiate it from the original; the most significant being the treatment of the former protagonist Jack.
As mentioned earlier, MS2 follows a different timeline to the original, with things diverging early on. Rather than Jack becoming the protagonist and leading the party, he is killed in an accident and transforms into a beanstalk-esque Nightmare. Despite this, he sticks around to help the party and becomes a sidekick to Otsuu; making himself useful in a number of unique ways which affect the gameplay. I won’t go into any more depth on the story, but you’ll be pleased to hear that despite similarities this sequel is different enough to justify itself and has plenty of variety to keep the player invested to the end. Granted, it isn’t the most complex plot, but it does the job of framing the dungeon crawling.
The core gameplay loop isn’t that complicated, as at its heart Mary Skelter 2 is a first-person dungeon crawler. For the most part, you’ll be exploring a number of large themed dungeons, fighting enemies in turn-based battles. What makes MS unique is the number of interactable objects in the dungeons and the light-puzzling elements which you encounter. Alongside the expected traps, the player must find objects and keys scattered throughout the level and utilise the abilities of your Blood Maidens in order to bypass trickier obstacles and interact with the world. Once you unlock Hamlyn you are able to pull objects from afar, and once you unlock Gretel you gain the ability to warp to a space ahead of you through Bread Portals. In addition, you can plant blood crystals (Blood is a recurring theme…) in dungeons to grow useful items – something which is increasingly useful as you progress. All of these elements enrich wandering – which could otherwise feel overtly repetitive – and create a gameplay experience like no other. The only element of this I’m not a fan of is the inclusion of nightmare chases. Yes, this could just be because I’m a bit of a coward, but essentially it’s possible to encounter the invincible Nightmare on every floor, which then locks your abilities and menu and chases you around the level. Once you escape it disappears but considering the maze-like nature of the world and the mixture of sound effects and vanishing map it can be incredibly stressful. Nightmares were also the cause of the only bugs I found, as it’s possible to get stuck in areas only accessible by warping if a Nightmare appears. I couldn’t save, I couldn’t open the menu to use an escape item, I couldn’t get to the Nightmare to kill it and I couldn’t warp back across because the ability was locked by the encounter. My only option was to kill myself back to the title screen, meaning I lost around two hours of progress. It’s not going to be an issue if you save regularly, but it’s something to be aware of.
Whilst roaming you’ll encounter monsters and engage them in battle. Monsters are presented in lines and are nicely realised in 3D. In these battles you command your BM’s to attack, heal etc using their HP and SP. For the most part, it’s JRPG combat, simple as, with your team being allocated to front and back rows in order to ensure your attackers can attack and your healer doesn’t get immediately pulped. There are a few unique mechanics, however.
Blood Maidens can be splashed with blood as the battle progresses. Once they are drenched, they go into Massacre mode, which increases their stats temporarily and gives them access to super moves. Alternatively, a character can lick blood (yes, really,) off of another character in order to activate a bonus; such as healing or a party shield. A little gross, but fair enough. In addition, being damaged and splattered slowly “corrupts” your team, increasing the chance of them taking on a darker, alternative transformation – Blood Skelter – which is essentially a berserk status. This can be either really useful or absolutely deadly to a party as if one character goes Skelter they could easily cause the others to or destroy their sisters in one hit.
Luckily, you have options that can be used to counteract this. Jack is able to squirt his own blood at the girls to “cleanse” them or bring them out of Skelter, but this also worsens HIS mental state, and if he gets too stressed he’ll also go berserk. This leads to an interesting balancing act in combat, as you have to be very aware of the consequences of your actions at all times and act accordingly. It’s really compelling and unique, and the combination of all these elements make for an experience like no other. I haven’t even mentioned the numerous jobs each character can access, Jail bonus’ or the blood packs, which give you free abilities you can use – there are layers of layers of mechanics for purists to enjoy.
When you aren’t in a dungeon, you’ll be back at the Hamlyn Liberated District – your base of operations. Here you visit and talk to various characters, can buy and sell items and can modify characters and gear. Conversations are presented in a similar way to visual novels, and whilst some of the light-hearted interactions borders on cringy fan-service, most are cute enough to forgive and deep enough to actually add to the experience. Most characters have unique characteristics which you will want to learn more about, making this area of the game more than just tacked on filler.
As you’re probably guessing though, Compile Heart hasn’t been able to completely steer themselves from fan-service. Yes, there is a rudimentary relationship system in place for Otsuu and the girls, but it’s ignorable if you aren’t into that stuff. There is also a rubbing minigame – used to “purify” the corruption from the girls between missions – but luckily there is a lot less emphasis on it than there was in Moe Chronicle. It’s skippable once you’ve done it once for each girl and it genuinely does emphasise the cleaning aspect. I still hate it, but they seem to have learnt that making it borderline optional is the way to go.
In terms of graphical design, Mary Skelter 2 excels. The backgrounds and environments are beautifully realised and (literally) dripping with life and references to well-known tales, and the creatures you encounter are excellently realised. I would have liked to have seen more variety in the goons of each dungeon rather than colour-swaps for subsequent floors, but this is only a small quibble. Nightmares are particularly glorious in their gory viscosity, with the aquarium’s fish-faced monstrosity being one of my favourites. Character design is all-around amazing, with each Blood Maiden having a good number of unique jobs – each with their own look – to choose from. It’s awesome to see the effort put into each character and costume, as they’ve clearly gone above and beyond to merge their fairy-tale identity with consistent class identities. Sound design is also fantastic, with dungeons having a creepy, living feel and the background sound punctuating the action brilliantly. For me, the best music in a game is that which doesn’t stand out as overwhelming or annoyingly repetitive, but which is enjoyably recognisable. Mary Skelter 2 hits that mark dead on.
In conclusion, Mary Skelter 2 feels like a celebration of the things which make dungeon crawlers great, but one which also aims to move the genre forward and provide as much depth as it can for those willing to put the effort in. It isn’t easy by any means, and you may find yourself having to grind at times, but you always have so many options that it never feels like a drag. The writing is funny, the design is astounding, and the overall package is huge; this actually feels like a full, finished experience! Whilst there is some fan-service, the game isn’t built purely around it; it’s a compromise I’m more than happy with. To top all this off, included with MS2 as free DLC is the complete remastered original; Mary Skelter: Nightmares, meaning that you get two games for the price of one. If you can’t already tell, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mary Skelter, and I’m sure that if you like a little bit of JRPG goodness or enjoy dungeon crawlers you’ll find something to love here.
Developer: Compile Heart
Series: Mary Skelter
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch
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