By William Haderlie / October 4th, 2017
|Title||Mary Skelter: Nightmares|
|Developer||Compile Heart, Idea Factory|
|Publisher||Idea Factory International|
|Release Date||September 19, 2017|
|Genre||Dungeon Crawler JRPG|
|Age Rating||ESRB M for Mature|
If you were to poll the general gaming audience as to what the most “hard core” genres are, some likely answers would be Fighting Games and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) Games. But it would not be very far down the list before you came to dungeon crawler RPGs. In fact, it is such a notoriously difficult genre of games that many people just actively avoid them and have never even played one. Part of that notorious difficulty is due to the fact that this is a genre of games that is one of the oldest in all of gaming, I played my first dungeon crawler back in the 1980’s on an Apple IIE computer. And games were generally just made to be a lot more difficult back then. But in the modern world there is also the examples of games like Stranger of Sword City, Demon Gaze, and particularly the Etrian Odyssey games, all of which were quite difficult compared to other games of the current era. There are a few examples where modern developers have tried to make a more simple version of the genre to get more people into it, such as Severed and Persona Q, but for longtime fans the difficulty and grinding is a feature of the genre, not a detraction. So the first part of any dungeon crawler review has to be for which audience it is intended. And in case of Mary Skelter: Nightmares, it is definitely an example of a dungeon crawler that is made for dungeon crawler fans, particularly when you get to the end of the game.
Like any other dungeon crawler, you move one square at a time on a grid based map system in first person view. When you meet up with a monster you see a large view of the group of monsters (also in first person view), only ever seeing the character portraits to the side and when you are selecting an ability for them to use. There are some more recent dungeon crawlers that have started to show more of the party members in battle but, especially on handheld systems, that is quite rare. Thankfully one modern feature does make it into Mary Skelter: Nightmares, and that is the game forming a dungeon map for you to bring up at any time. You cannot interact with the map to create any notes for yourself or to create any custom paths, with one exception. You do have the ability to select a point on the map and usually (more on that later) your party will make their way to that point with the safest route possible. The only limitations are that it cannot be blocked by any interactive objects and it has to be a point on the map that you’ve previously explored.
There are two aspects of Mary Skelter: Nightmares that were largely pulled from the Etrian Odyssey games, the first is devolution (more on that in the next section) and the second is something similar to the FOEs in that series. And that is a really good thing to pull from the EO series, as it’s one of the most popular features. Nightmares in this game are similar to FOEs in that they are very large monsters that you can see from the map screen (all other fights are random) and they can also attack you while in the middle of fighting other creatures if you are in their path of movement. Other than that, they switched things up a little by making the Nightmares creatures that you are required to avoid until you reach the end of the dungeon. It is actually impossible to defeat them until you destroy the core (at the very end of that dungeon). Until that point, if you are attacked by a Nightmare, you have to destroy one of its parts and that will cause the creature to be stunned while it repairs itself. During that time that it’s stunned you have to run away and get around 90 meters away from where the Nightmare is before you can totally escape it. Until you reach the fringe of its zone, the Nightmare will chase you and it will also attack you outside of combat if you are in its line of sight. To add to the terror of these encounters, on any difficulty but Easy, you cannot see the zone’s map while you are running. So you can possibly run right into a dead end and have to fight the creature again to escape in a different direction. Additionally you cannot pull up your menu at all or exit the dungeon while a Nightmare is chasing you. So if you are going to die in this game, that is the most likely cause.
On Normal difficulty the Nightmares are really the only thing that is likely to kill you unless you try to skip a whole lot of content. But on Hard mode the game is much more like Etrian Odyssey, where even random bad groupings of enemies can possibly wipe you. In either case, you can mitigate the possible chances of death by using strategic groupings of party members. Each party member has a choice of 5 different Jobs, with those 5 jobs being shared with one of the other Blood Maidens. For instance, Alice and Cinderella have the same set of Jobs (physical attacking classes) while Sleeping Beauty and Kaguya also share a different set of 5 Jobs (ranged attack classes). Additionally there is free DLC that you can download for the game off of PSN that adds a 6th class that every Blood Maiden can use, the Sakura Maiden. Sakura Maidens are unique because they are an all around class that can use a large variety of weapons and are good on the front row or back row with a general good number on all their different base stats. However, they are not a cheat code for the game, they are nowhere near the most powerful class out of any of the Blood Maidens, and it’s best to use them if you want a 5th role in your party that doesn’t match anything you are interested in for that Maiden. So even if you are uninterested in Thumbelina’s mage abilities, you can turn her into a Sakura Maiden and make her into a (serviceable) front line fighter if you still want to use her in your party of five.
You will want to change jobs fairly often, or as often as possible, because you can mix and match the active skills that you gain with each Job. You cannot change the base stats that are part of each Job (some are faster, some have higher defense, etc), and you cannot bring over the passive skills that you learn with each, but the active skills make it a huge incentive to diversify your portfolio. Ideally, if you really want to master this game, you should master all the best active skills and then switch back to a Job that meets the party spot you need. So you can gain a lot of different nice offensive skills as Alice and then turn her back into a Paladin to protect the rest of the party as a tank. That will give you the best of both worlds since she can Intimidate the boss the first round and then spend several rounds still dishing out a lot of damage while she’s still drawing the ire of that enemy. On Easy there isn’t really as much need for strategy in classes, but I really would not recommend playing any dungeon crawler game on Easy, a very large feature of the games is pitting your mind and perseverance against the designers of the brutal dungeons. If you are playing on Hard, or really far on Normal, you may also want to use Devolution. Similar to the EO games, it allows you to regress your character back a set number of levels with the benefit of a slight increase in stats and some bonus skill points (it’s the only way to have enough skill points to actually master all 6 classes).
To assist you with combating the denizens of the dungeons, your party members build up a blood meter (that you see below each portrait) that acts as basically a Limit Break from the Final Fantasy series, called Massacre Mode. How long each girl stays in Massacre Mode is variable depending on what you do while in that mode, but it only ever lasts for one normal battle or one Nightmare escape sequence. While in Massacre Mode each Blood Maiden has access to an array of super powerful moves that are quite variable in effect depending on which Maiden it is. You can also stop the buildup of blood by having the girls Lick the blood off of each other (you read that right), which gives them character specific buffs. When enemies attack the Maidens they can also randomly cause the blood that is covering them to become corrupted (the blood gauge turns consecutively darker) and there is a higher chance of corruption the harder they get hit as a percentage of their total health. You really do not want them to reach the Massacre Mode state with corrupted blood, if they do there is a high chance they will enter Blood Skelter mode and go berserk, attacking anyone at random (including your own party members).
There is a potential of 10 party members (9 required and 1 hidden and optional), so you are intended to have one of each Job profile in your party of 5. The Massacre abilities can be the difference between which girl you choose to bring along with you in the party. The other 5 Maidens also come with you but only as Partners, and they can occasionally assist your front line girl with a special move of their own. They also earn 50% of the experience that the front line party members do, so at least you can partially keep up with leveling all 10 characters without needing to do a lot of party switching (like in most dungeon crawlers). One last thing I would like to note about the Jobs is that I actually ended up choosing not to have one of each Job structure characters in my party. I decided to remove my mage class characters in favor of having both Alice and Cinderella in my party. If I was playing the game casually, I would not have done that, but I was trying to finish the game a little more quickly for review and 2 physical attackers with the Marshall skills makes the game much faster (although it still took me 115 hours to complete in total).
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