Industry has a way of watering down transgressive works. Take Children’s and Household Tales, the 1812 collection of folktales assembled by the Grimms Brothers. Far removed from the modern versions we might associate from studios like Disney, many of these stories depicted shocking acts of sexuality and atrocious violence. From the predatory actions of the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood to the pain and bleeding endured when The Little Mermaid dances, it’s little wonder writer John Updike called these stories ‘pornography of an earlier age.’
These were home-spun yarns intended to shock and frighten, not just pack the populace into the local multiplex. But now these characters are often associated with bowdlerized re-tellings that have omitted the one constituent that made them compelling. Moralistic lectures rarely withstand the tests of time, but sex and violence unvaryingly endure.
The release of Compile Heart’s Mary Skelter 2 reminds of the unsettling, often politically incorrect nature of yesteryear’s fairy tales. Much like its predecessor, 2017’s Mary Skelter: Nightmares, the sequel unites characters like Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Thumbelina, and Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Alice (of Wonderland) alongside The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter’s Princess Kaguya.
While it would have been gratifying to see a balance between Western and Eastern characters (possibly incorporating yōkai like Yuki-onna), Skelter 2’s collection of Blood Maidens are a fascinating faction, with personalities and motivations far richer that the original folktales. For one, the game’s revolves around the madness, with any of the Maidens turning to maniacs by the continued splatter of enemy blood. But this psychosis can be taken too far, and Blood Skelter mode means they’ll indiscriminately attack foe and friends, putting the entire party in serious danger. After years of teammates being untiringly dependable, it’s invigorating, albeit perilous, to see a comrade go crazy.
Like the previous game, Mary Skelter 2 is set in Jail, which is not the dingy holding facility its name might imply. No, Jail is a living, sentient hellhole, born from a cavernous shaft that formed in the middle of a nondescript city. It’s split into different, vibrantly colored areas, each protected by a beast referred to a “nightmare”. Given their often-terrifying appearance, the moniker is an apt descriptor. Terrors also exist in the form of Marchens, the surrealistic terror that roam it’s expanses, eager to slaughter any creature they encounter.
Attempting to subsist among these frights are Otsuu and Little Mermaid, a betrothed couple who are part of a group known as Dawn. Early on, a glimmer of hope glimmers in the disheartening hellhole, when the duo saves Alice and Jack while on a reconnaissance mission. But optimism is quickly extinguished when Alice violently going into Skelter Mode, injuring those around her, and knocking Otsuu, Little Mermaid, and Jack downward. The latter suffers the most, transforming into an inarticulate, vine-shrouded half-Nightmare.
With dialog told through visual novel-like sequences, Skelter 2’s dismal setting is habitually lightened by comical character banter. Given that the game’s Blood Maidens can execute Blood Skills by licking the hemoglobin off each other bodies, it’s not surprisingly to find Compile Heart using the exchange of bodily fluids as a source for laughs. Even after investing a multitude of hours into the original Mary Skelter (which is bundled, complete with some quality of life improvements), those jokes never tire.
Largely, the game’s dungeons stay relatively engaging as well. Like any respectable DRPG, your entire party moves through gridded, three-dimensional labyrinths, while guided by a handy auto-mapping feature. Expect puzzles and traps aplenty, from spikes that shoot out of the ground, exposed cavities that injury your party should you fall, to switches that need activating before a remote door opens. While Marchens are a persistent threat, it’s the Nightmares that will undoubtedly quicken pulses and produce a sense of panic.
Proceeded by a haze of white mist, these echo the formidable FOEs of the Etrian Odyssey series. Once the miasma thickens, your party will want to get out of the area as quickly as possible, losing the burly pursuer in the process. Eschewing the system of gridded movement that you’re confined to, Nightmares constantly advance on you, even if you’re looking at the game’s menu or busy with a battle. They can be stunned, but not killed, meaning you can expect death if they chase you in a corner. And there’s a good chance they will trap you. Play Skelter 2 on its highest two difficulties and your mini-map will disappear after detection. This turns into true role-playing, as you’re likely feel the kind of panic as your party.
As least for Marchens, you have a few tools in your disposal. Weapons with a ‘bloodshot’ quality can produce the Kagome Kagome effect (based on a Japanese children’s game), causing enemies to bleed profusely and become spun around. For players yearning to build up their inventory, planting crystals recovered in combat can produce Blood Flowers. Once harvested, and ideally drenched regularly with Marchen fluid, they can produce rare item, rewarding the title it takes for cultivation. One character can even reap entire fields at a single time, increasing the change for exotic objects even more.
Naturally, you can also nurture your Blood Maidens. Each can adopt one of five different jobs from Archers who are adept at ranged attacks to Scientists who are privy to specialized skills. In execution, this helps Skelter 2 strike a gratifying balance between synergistic pre-made teams and a cast of user-created characters. Pleasingly, your vocation isn’t just a simple tech-tree, with elements like abilities, equipped weapons and armor, and even appearance contingent on your occupation. Another perk is used Blood Packs found in dungeons to unlock particular skills in your Maiden team.
Those aren’t the only managerial duties you’ll undertake. When the Blood Maidens drop into Blood Skelter Mode, they’ll become corrupted. When this condition occurs, you’ll get to engage in a bit of classic Compile Heart fan-service, scanning and touching a Maiden’s body to remove the disease. Another interesting activity is earning Jail Pieces to weight a game of roulette in your favor. Satisfy Jail’s trio of desire and you’ll earn fragments that can heal players or even dish out damage to foes.
The sole downside to Skelter 2’s myriad of mechanics is learning how they all work. For those who didn’t play the original game, the first couple hours of the game are going to be interrupted by a succession of tutorial screens. Alternatively, those who played Mary Skelter will have it easier, as there are quite a few recurring components. The downside is that other that an increase in difficulty, the sequel feels iterative rather than innovative. While the result isn’t the kind of 1.5 revision the industry sporadically puts out, Mary Skelter 2 could have taken a few more thematic and mechanical risks.
Mary Skelter 2 was played on Switch with review code provided by the publisher.