Even through all its ups and downs, Compile Heart remains one of my favorite developers, having been involved in titles such as Hyperdimension Neptunia, Record of Agarest War and Fairy Fencer F. Therefore, when the company announced last year that it would release a dungeon crawler RPG — one of my favorite genres — called Mary Skelter: Nightmares (Kamigokuto: Mary Skelter in Japan), my interest was immediately piqued and I waited with bated breath for the announcement of an English release. At long last, that time is nearly upon us and I’m here to share some of my experience with the game so far before the full review next week.
As of writing this, I’m in the middle of Chapter 4 on Hard Mode and have spent a little under 34 hours to get there (admittedly, I have spent a fair amount of time exploring old dungeons with new characters to unlock new routes) and have had a great deal of fun along the way. To be clear, Mary Skelter: Nightmares isn’t the first DRPG that Compile Heart has developed. Titles such as MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death and Moe Chronicle have been around for awhile now; and using such titles as a base, it has become increasingly clear that CH was committed to making this the best DRPG it has made to date and potentially redefining the genre as a whole.
All the hallmarks of a Compile Heart game is present in Mary Skelter: Nightmares: interesting setting, fantastic art, a diverse cast, unique mechanics and, of course, fanservice — it’s all there.
The story is adequate so far, telling you exactly what you need to know for the most part: what is going on, what you’re doing and why. In this case, the game tells the tale of two childhood friends, Jack and Alice, who, along with their friends, work to find a way to escape Jail — a living prison which suddenly appeared after a city collapsed — and the Marchen, the various monsters residing within that has turned the majority of people in the area into prisoners. I’m not holding out too much hope for the story to remain so simple, though. Ignoring the fact that there a prequel novel (which is steadily unlocked as you progress through the game) that is needed to fully grasp the backstory, Compile Heart is known for being overly ambitious with its stories as they go along — often causing them to fall apart or leave some questions unanswered by the end. Unfortunately, there are already some signs that Mary Skelter: Nightmares will go in this direction, as there’s some mysterious stuff going on and the questions keep mounting with no answers in sight.
Fortunately, while the story could potentially go downhill, the characters — though somewhat “trope-y” — are interesting enough to keep everything entertaining. All of the main characters are inspired by a character from a famous fairy tale/novel/etc. and various aspects of each are dictated by their base material. For example, Cinderella has a pair of earrings in the shape of glass slippers and you spend the majority of one dungeon searching for one of them after she misplaces it. What’s more, she spends a fair amount of her spare time cleaning or worrying about fashion (dresses in particular) and several scenes emphasize this. Seeing how each character employs the logic or reasoning utilized by the character they’re based on to tackle situations they come across has been an unexpected treat.
And while on the subject of treats, the art and visuals has been one as well — though this is something I’ve come to expect from CH over the years. Not only does each character possess a unique look, featuring aspects of the story they’re based off of, the game also manages to subvert what players would expect out of a game that takes place in a giant prison. One would assume that the game would be dreary and have subdued, darker colors to match, but Mary Skelter: Nightmares manages to make each dungeon colorful while still maintaining a creepy feeling. For example, even with all the bright neon lights littering the Downtown dungeon area, it’s still hard not to get creeped out by the empty, dark alleyways and mysteriously moving pothole covers on the ground.
That said, no amount of creepiness that any dungeon exudes can match the feeling of dread that comes from encountering a Nightmare — giant creatures that “roam” around a dungeon. I had gone in expecting Nightmares to be akin to Etrian Odyssey’s FOEs, but I quickly found that comparison to be somewhat disingenuous. Though both are large enemies that are visible on the field, Nightmares are all inherently hostile to you, consistently hunt you and encountering them changes the pace of the game significantly. Once you’re spotted, you enter a chase sequence which is not only carried out in real-time, but the map is turned off (unless you’re playing on Easy Mode) and you can’t open the pause menu. At that point, your only options are to escape or fight the Nightmare in a bid to stun it and make your escape easier. Unfortunately, fighting a Nightmare is easier said than done. Battles occur in real-time, and taking too long to select an option will allow it to skip your own teammates’ turns and take more actions than what is normally possible. There was never a dull moment when exploring a dungeon because the possibility of an encounter with a Nightmare always kept me honest.
Unfortunately, encountering a Nightmare is the most fun that will be had when it comes to combat. As is always the case with games in this genre, battles come down to picking a party, devising a strategy that is most effective and then executing said strategy ad nauseum. That isn’t to say the combat is inherently boring — especially with all the facets included (something that will be discussed in detail in the full review) — but it can be repetitive at times. At the very least, being able to tinker with various class combinations helps to keep combat interesting.
Lastly, there’s fan service. As this is a Compile Heart game, there are obviously scenes featuring the heroines in revealing outfits and/or in compromising positions. Compared to other titles, however, Mary Skelter: Nightmares has far less of them. I’ve only seen two scenes that qualify as fan service and the minigame (where most of the fan service is located) is entirely optional and can actually be skipped after completing it the first time.
So far, I’ve enjoyed Mary Skelter: Nightmares considerably. Even with its faults (which I’ll go into greater detail in the full review), the game still has me coming back for more. I’m looking forward to seeing what else the game throws my way and whether my perceptions of the game stay the same by the time I complete the game and write the full review.