Mary Skelter is a series of games developed and produced by the Compile Heart/Idea Factory Duo, released on PS4/Switch/Vita and PC.
It’s a dungeon crawler JRPG where you have to explore a grid-based dungeon with a first-person view and vanquish enemies in JRPG-style battles.
Figuring out by which title to start was a headache as the original Mary Skelter was released on Vita. When Mary Skelter 2 was released, it contained a remake of the first one, with new maps, and a modified story and post-game. They are meant to be played as a single experience, starting with 2, then the remake of 1 then the postgame of 1, for story reasons. You are confused and so was I.
This article is quite long, so you can just jump onto the part that interests you, first I will talk about the setting and characters, then about the gameplay.
A Nightmarish world you cannot escape
In the world of Mary Skelter, an unknown cataclysm happened and the surface of the world is now known as the “Jail”. In the Jail, humans are hunted by horrible creatures known as the Marchens, which slaughter them, torture them, and even imprison them. Each game starts with a prison break. In the first game, Alice and Jake are saved by Red Riding Hood a young girl with otherworldly strength coming to save them. Very fast, it is revealed that Alice possesses too this power and that she is a Blood Maiden. Blood Maidens are not humans, they are girls that can beat those creatures. With a drawback. Indeed if they lose control, they enter a berserker rage and slaughter everyone, foes, and friends. Thankfully, Jake’s blood has the ability to calm the maiden that has entered the “Skelter” mode.
From then our little group gets back to a group of human resistance, where they meet other team members and characters. They get quests, and manage levels, skills, and equipment from there, before launching themselves in the numerous dungeons. En route, they meet new companions and realize that the world is not what it may seem. In each dungeon, reside a terrible Nightmare, a monster that never dies and chases you around.
Each companion and each Nightmare comes from a Fairy Tale from different Folklore (but mostly European). You will find Hansel and Gretel in their house made of biscuits, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Thumbelina, Sleeping Beauty, and others. Each one of them is unique in terms of design and characters, although tropey. Unlike many, I don’t think being tropey is a bad thing in this case.
In the second opus, the start is very similar, blood maidens are coming to help Jack and Alice but when Alice is entering Skelter, Jack and our hero Ootsu, fall through the floor and lose Alice. Jack, is transformed into a Nightmare! From a weird retelling of the first opus, we get to an alternate version, meeting the same characters, with slight variations.
The story is conveyed to you through dialogues given by characters in your typical VN fashion, a portrait, a textbox, and your trusty thumb mashing next. The pacing is not so great. After each dungeon, you would get a long story time. This could go sometimes to a whole hour of reading scenes after having spent several of exploring. I’d rather have the story delivered in smaller, but more frequent and palatable bits.
Only a few characters get really enough screen time and good lines, with Hansel being the most developed character besides the protagonists in my opinion. With so many characters, it’s only normal that this kind of thing happens, each character having its own trope and coming from a fairy tale you know, help build the character and shave off precious lines. The story is serviceable and sells itself as mature. Playing the second game first is a good choice, it leaves a lot to the shadows, to be revealed in the first opus. The two games are tied by the postgame. However, some elements at the end of the first opus were hard to swallow. I can’t say I was invested and it fell short in comparison to the ambiance and story of Death End Request, by the same developers.
However, with a third opus and several novels (that I did not read yet), there is a lot more to explore if you want to invest it more.
Compile Heart being Compile Heart there is a few ecchi scenes you have to unlock by building a relationship with each character. They are sexy misadventures that didn’t feel creepy to me since the protagonists are fairly innocent about it. However, the blood removal minigame (optional) is a bit more intense and was censored in the computer versions.
Ootsu is a more interesting protagonist to me because despite their body being female, they refer to themselves as Prince, bind their chest, and assume a couple of attitudes more reserved to males in fairy tale stories. They are a very handsome maiden that I took more pleasure to self-insert than Jack. This setup allows for Yuri scenes and tones, that make my heart beat faster than regular romance. The relationship with Little Mermaid was really cute and I will remember their exchange of marshmallow words fondly.
Graphism and Sound
Like Death End Request, the design is from Kei Nanameda which I enjoy a lot. Each character is different from another and guess what kind of person they are and from which fairy tale they are inspired is instant. Most transformations and outfits look great and I enjoyed unlocking them, just to see what they looked like. The 3D of the dungeon and the design of the enemies however are subpar. Most enemies are ugly without real personalities and will come in numerous colors. Some zone of the dungeon generates weird performance issues on Switch, which I found surprising since there is not much going on. The songs are really great and contribute a lot to the ambiance of the game. Amongst them, the battles tracks, won’t get old and I will listen to some again for months and years to come.
Exploration is pretty classic with satisfying mazes. There will be riddles and each companion have an ability that affects exploration, but most of it is pushing the button with the right person at the right time, the rest is stale boring sliding puzzles. Before coming to the dungeon, you can choose a certain number of challenges, to make the dungeon more risky. Amongst them, there is one that disables the ability to save within a dungeon. It’s not optional, take it. It gives a 30% XP boost which allows you to get through the dungeons at a normal pace. You will die sometimes and wish you had saved, but you save much more time by enabling this option.
The minimap is useful and there is an option to auto walk until a point you explore but this stops at traps, so you’re often better walking with the force of your mighty thumbs. The encounter rate can certainly be a bit much sometimes, but you can modify this with items.
The combat is done in a classic JRPG manner. I played in normal difficulty and it was initially a walk in the park until it stops joking around. If you are taken by surprise, you can be almost certain you will wipe, tweaking your defenses, and incapacitating enemy groups is not optional. Even in normal.
Mary Skelter’s gameplay has a lot of individual gimmicky elements, that just assemble to make a coherent whole. It’s something very strange within Compile Heart games, where, they just throw the most system they can and it works. Mary Skelter does a bunch of unique things that are interesting.
Each girl have a gauge indicating how much enemy blood they were splattered with. When it’s full, they enter a bonus state with special attacks and increased stats. But if they took too much damage, or see their allies fall too much, they enter the “Skelter” mode, where they are uncontrollable their attack are deadly and they smash friends and foes.
Jack is a non-fighting character that is used in battles, to guard damage, handle the Skelter gauge, and use items. Even if he doesn’t attack enemies he’s incredibly useful and at each turn, you will choose if you take care of the girl’s mental state, use an item or replenish your resources.
Each girl can “lick” another girl to remove the blood instantly. This triggers a bonus, different for each girl, from giving a buff to replenishing HP or giving a shield. Knowing when to enter Skelter, when to give up a turn for licking, or when to let Jack handles it become interesting. Each lick action makes also the jail mood increase.
Jail Mood and Roulette
Depending on your action in combat, but also during exploration, 3 different gauge of jail mood fills up. When one is filled, a roulette appears with a random effect, ranging from money to damage or buff and debuff. Some of these are incredibly strong. And this is where Mary Skelter’s design starts to shine. You have some classes that will increase the blood generated by enemies, and others that change how fast or how strong the roulette effect is. You enter a risk-reward loop where you will risk being in skelter more often, to activate their special powers and the roulette more often, at the cost of driving your team mad faster.
Nightmares are horrible monsters that break all the rules of the game. When the majority of the fights are random encounters, Nightmare appears physically in the dungeon and will chase you around. When this happens, the screen darkens, your minimap disappears and you have to escape! If he manages to corner you, you can fight him to give enough damage to stun him and get through them. But you can’t kill them! To kill them, you have to destroy the core of the dungeon first, which is of course, in the highest levels.
One very funny thing also is that while the game is turn-based, the Nightmare doesn’t care. If you take too long to make your turn, his turn will gradually come faster, skipping yours. This is extremely stressful as fights in Mary Skelter can go very fast from good to panic. And while this is fun, and works really well in making them terrifying enemies, at the end of the game, it boils down to how fast you can input your turn. It’s interesting, but not overwhelmingly so.
Each character has one of 5 archetypes giving access to 6 different classes (more with DLCs) with their own active and passive skills. It’s varied and we have some unique classes. In Mary Skelter 2 you can mix and match active and passive but in 1, only active. Since you’re supposed to play 1 after the 2 it feels like a downgrade.
Gear is pretty important and unfortunately pretty random. Playing in normal, I never had to farm for gear in both games, but there are certainly numerous times I had to choose the right skills, or the right equipment for boss fights, or for enemies that just hit too hard. Although it seems like there is a lot of freedom for building your party, I wonder if there is truly a variety of different possibilities for it.
Finishing the two games took me way over 100h but I did enjoy my time and felt proud while finishing it. If you do not enjoy cute girls, there are probably better dungeons to crawl than this one. If it’s to your taste, you will find games that deliver a solid experience and much more, with several small novels and a third opus available on console but soon ported to PC as well. After finishing a couple other crawlers, I know I will come back to with the third opus eventually.