Review by Matt S.
Given that I reviewed the original Mary Skelter: Nightmares, it’s actually difficult to find new things to say about Mary Skelter 2, above and beyond what I’ve already written. The reality is that while the two titles tell different stories, thematically, they tread the exact same ground. That is by no means a criticism though, since the original Mary Skelter was a fascinating dungeon crawler that appealed to just about every one of my tastes in the arts. Nonetheless I am in a conundrum about what to write here, so let’s see if I can get to 1,000 words without simply copy/pasting my first review.
As with the original, two things immediately stand out about Mary Skelter 2. Firstly, the game draws its heroes from fairy tales and children’s books. You’ve got Jack, and Alice, the little Mermaid, Rapunzel, and any other number of characters from the stories you loved growing up. That’s what makes the second thing that immediately stands out so creepy: Mary Skelter 2 is highly fetishistic in the world that it presents. The characters are all trapped in a living dungeon of writhing bodies that exists by feeding on the blood of people. That same blood is a potent weapon and means of support, and characters are constantly flinging it over one another, or licking it off each other.
All of this is incredibly creepy, and deliberately so. It’s like Brothers Grimm meets Marquis de Sade, with the dungeon being a torture gauntlet with a mind of its own, determined to inflict a kind of eroticised, exquisite pain on each of its victims. Oddly enough, given that this is a Idea Factory title and Idea Factory isn’t exactly known for restraint where depictions of sexuality are concerned, Mary Skelter and its sequel are both relatively restrained in the visual depictions of what the narrative itself is describing. Each of the female characters can become so splattered with blood that they enter a berserk mode, which strips them down to almost nothing, and that’s standard Idea Factory fan service stuff. There’s also the occasional key scene image which might raise eyebrows a little, but compared to what the narrative calls for players to imagine, Mary Skelter 2 is downright subtle.
Things get really intense when the nightmares start showing up. Nightmare are impossibly powerful monsters that, when you first encounter them, you’ve got no way to defeat them. They work a little like the FOEs of Etrian Odyssey and Persona Q in that if one catches you, it’s probably going to be game over. Where Mary Skelter is different is that the nightmares chase your team in real time. With Etrian Odyssey it was a bit of a chess game – you move a step, and the FOEs all move a step. You could puzzle your way out of fighting them by figuring out their paths and creeping around them. When a Mary Skelter nightmare shows up, the thing chases you without politely waiting for you to take your turn, so you’re going to need to frantically dash away, and hope to put enough distance away from them so they will disappear back into the ether… for a time anyway.
What makes this really tense is that the nightmares show up without warning, and when they do, your map also disappears (if you’re playing on the higher difficulty levels, which I highly recommend in order to feel an adequate level of tension in fleeing from these things). This is a really clever and subtly subversive trick that highlights just how different Mary Skelter is as a dungeon crawler. In dungeon crawls, the map is core to the very playability of the title. Back before the days of auto-mapping, players would buy books of grid paper to make their own maps as they played, because otherwise the labyrinth would become too confusing, too quickly. They’d get very lost, and thanks to the general difficulty of the genre (especially back then), getting lost was a terminal mistake.
With the advent of auto-mapping dungeon crawlers started getting even more labyrinthine in their design, and players started relying on those maps for getting around all the more. Etrian Odyssey tapped into the mapping as an inherently unique element of the dungeon crawler by getting players to draw their maps onto the touch screen of the Nintendo DS or 3DS as they moved along. Mary Skelter and its sequel cruelly take that map and the sense of security that comes with it away, and do so right at the most tense moments.
As someone who generally has a pretty good memory, I’ve still been caught out by this trick in the past, and managed to flee my team down a dead end when running from a nightmare, allowing the thing to subsequently catch and ravage my team. The risk of that happened has subtly shifted the way that I play these games in comparison to other crawlers; I find myself a little more cautious and thorough as I explore in Mary Skelter, precisely because if a nightmare shows up, I don’t want to be deep in uncharted territory without an easy way to get back to spaces that are familiar. Throw in the fact that the nightmare designs themselves are brilliantly imaginative in their warped designs, and Mark Skelter 2 really does a great job of throwing the fairy tale aesthetic and temperament on its head.
All of this is much the same, across Mary Skelter and its sequel. In addition to the normal party members, Mary Skelter 2 has an actual nightmare join your party early on, but he’s a bit of a risk to have around. His attacks and abilities are incredibly powerful, but using him in combat raises his “heart rate.” Once that gets too high, he goes berserk and becomes a real liability to your party. Mechanically this is a nice addition of a super-powered risk/reward element, and again I recommend playing on the higher difficulty settings because there you’ll be sorely tempted to press your luck in using your nightmare buddy.
In fact, in general I get the sense that this sequel exists because Idea Factory realised that the team hit on something pretty special with the original Mary Skelter, but because its dominant platform for it was the PlayStation Vita, not that many people actually had the chance to play it Mary Skelter 2 is an attempt to find just how broad the audience for this kind of game can really be. That the original has been thrown in there as a bonus is a little unnecessary, I feel, since they’re basically re-treads of one another, but it is nonetheless a nice bonus for people that want to explore the secondary stories around the characters and so on.
Mary Skelter 2 is more of the same, but given that no one else out there would touch this combination of fairy tale, fetishistic horror, and anime fan service, I can’t complain one bit about what Mary Skelter 2 is. It’s the sequel to one of the most original and memorable dungeon crawlers in recent memory, and that too makes it one of the most original and memorable dungeon crawlers in recent memory.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
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