I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to review Mary Skelter Finale. I’ve never played a Mary Skelter game before, and admittedly, I’m not much of a dungeon RPG fan. However, I’ve found myself enjoying Idea Factory and Compile Heart’s horror-themed output lately. Add lead artist Kei Nanameda into the mix and you have a combination that hasn’t let me down yet. So, when Mary Skelter Finale was announced for release in the West, I was quite interested. I’d always wanted to check out the series at some point, and since the previous games’ cutscenes are all included, I felt assured that I could jump in here. Little did I know how overwhelming and time consuming that would be.
Mary Skelter Finale is, as the name suggests, the finale of the series. It is the third entry in a line of rather long, story-heavy dungeon RPGs. Finale takes place mere minutes after the true ending of Mary Skelter: Nightmares. Before starting the game, I’d been informed of the character-driven nature of the series, but I didn’t have it in me to go through the entire series just to catch up. After all, both prior games creep into the hundred hour range. Thankfully, the developers have included a mode called Before Story to make experiencing them more akin to a pair of visual novels.
Without any of the gameplay, Before Story is a very distilled and slightly awkward way to experience the first two games. While not ideal, this method is an adequate way to catch up. Mary Skelter: Nightmares and Mary Skelter 2 are cut down to roughly 25 to 30 hours of visual novels combined. Before even starting Mary Skelter Finale, I wanted to familiarize myself with these characters, so I went through Before Story first, and I was quite surprised when I became hooked on the story and attached to the characters. I had to know what happened next. Minutes after the credits rolled, I started up Mary Skelter Finale proper.
Simply put, Mary Skelter Finale is the most mechanically dense game I have ever played. I can only scratch the surface in this review, otherwise each mechanic would get its own paragraph, if not two. Essentially, The Mary Skelter games are dungeon crawler RPGs with a very heavy emphasis on dungeons. As someone who previously had little interest or experience in the subgenre, I was being thrown into the deep end here. While I’d dabbled in games like Etrian Odyssey and Wizardry, I had never spent more than a dozen hours in either. To make things even more overwhelming, Mary Skelter Finale is a multi-party dungeon RPG. The cast consists of three teams of six characters, for a total of eighteen main characters. While there are a few new faces, the vast majority of these characters come from the prior games.
With the party split into three groups, each of the teams tackles the game’s dungeons separately. The party leaders Jack, Clara, and Toh all guide their allies through wings of progressively more complex dungeons. Thanks to the Zapping system, players can jump between any of the three teams with a simple button press. This is quick, easy, and intuitive, and it makes the process of exploration quite smooth. Sometimes, a team will need a door opened but lack the means to do it themselves. Either a switch found in another wing or a particular key item may be required. Everything you do as one team benefits the others, including farming gear or items, as you eventually unlock a shared inventory system. On top of this, each character has a special ability they can use to trigger switches, put out fires, run across gaps, turn themselves invisible, and so on.
On the subject of density, the game’s dungeons are absolutely gigantic, monstrous, labyrinthine abominations that feel both randomly designed by an AI and hand-crafted by a sadistic dungeon master. These multi-floor dungeons can easily take more than a dozen hours to explore. The second chapter’s dungeon alone took me over twenty hours. Navigating just a single floor of these mega-dungeons can take hours, and poking around a wing of the dungeon with one team can push into the two to three hour mark. While this sounds exhausting, the Zapping system ensures that you play with one team just long enough to make notable progress before switching over to another, keeping the exploration and combat encounters fresh.
The vast majority of the playable cast are known as Blood Maidens — a special kind of human that has unique powers. Blood Maidens are also named after characters from fairy tales. While some of these are blindingly obvious from their names alone, others are slightly more subtle. Jack comes from Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella from Cinderella, and so on. Characters like Hameln come from The Pied Piper, while The Little Match Girl is simply known as Mary. In the prior games, the characters act far more in line with their fabled counterparts, but in Finale, they’re granted a lot of growth and personality that makes them feel like their own characters rather than simple representations of fairy tales.
On the gameplay side, the game is generally split into two primary modes. Character interactions, conversations, and general events take place in the usual visual novel format with detailed Live2D-esque portraits. Thankfully, this never feels visually boring, as the characters’ light animation and expressions give them a sense of life. That said, dramatic events and attacks in cutscenes are often left up to the imagination, though there are little flourishes and flairs of color paired with sounds to help accentuate and clarify the action.
Dungeon exploration, on the other hand, takes place entirely in first person in a 3D environment. The dungeons are split into grids on which you move one square at a time. The entire party moves as a whole, though you never see any of them in 3D. When exploring, their portraits are at the bottom of the screen, and in combat, their portraits are prominently displayed during their turn. I’m not a fan of first-person combat, and yet I never found myself bothered by the presentation in this game.
During combat, players control six characters, though only five of them are active combatants. Your leader is a Mary Gun user — someone who has the ability to use a special gun that utilizes their own blood as a means to purify corruption. Mary Skelter Finale‘s primary gameplay mechanic revolves around these Blood Maidens. If it wasn’t clear already, the Mary Skelter series is all about blood. As blood is splashed around the battlefields, it hits the Blood Maidens and causes them to enter a more powerful state known as Massacre. However, much of the enemy’s blood is corrupted, which causes the Blood Maiden’s blood to also become corrupted. Should they hit a certain threshold, they enter a state known as Blood Skelter and attack anyone and anything with wild and reckless abandon. As their stats are boosted in this state and they have access to every attack, skill, or spell you have put on them, this is something that should be feared.
While traversing these colossal dungeons, the biggest threat isn’t running out of supplies or encountering deadly monsters. The most deadly adversaries are your friends. Should they enter Blood Skelter, they can easily wipe out your party within seconds. That said, fortune may smile upon you and your crazed ally may wipe the floor with the enemy instead. It’s a dangerous game to play, so managing corruption and blood is a key part of the gameplay. With the previously mentioned Massacre mode offering boosted stats alongside new and powerful moves, walking the thin line between Massacre and Blood Skelter is both exciting and rewarding.
Mary Skelter Finale also features an in-depth job system that allows players to pick and choose abilities and spells from the classes they’ve unlocked. Each character may have a general archetype, but there is quite a bit of freedom in how they’re built. Like much of the game, this too can be overwhelming and lead to choice paralysis. Though Finale does offer some light onboarding and tutorials to help get players acquainted with the system, it operates on the assumption that the player is familiar with the class system from previous games. Alternatively, online resources and guides can drastically help, as Mary Skelter Finale has the feeling of a final exam.
With a huge cast of customizable characters and an intriguing job system, the battles in Mary Skelter Finale are quite satisfying. Despite being turn-based, they’re fast and snappy. Battles feel completely distilled and refined as they strip out a lot of the fluff of most RPG battle systems. While I personally love seeing my characters wielding new weapons and performing flashy attacks in games, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mary Skelter Finale didn’t leave me wanting. I enjoyed testing out my new abilities on enemies, setting up screen-clearing spells, and theory-crafting builds as I wandered through dangerous dungeons. The game also makes full use of its unique mechanics. Players can force enemies to turn around and show their back to you via Kagome-kagome, named after the Japanese children’s game. Additionally, the Critical Notice system deserves a mention for pre-emptively telling the player when they’ll land a critical hit along with how strong said hit will be.
On the presentation front, the game isn’t particularly attractive in 3D. The dungeons are thematically interesting and the monsters are grotesque abominations that fit right at home with the horror themes, yet the quality of the models feels like it comes from a previous generation. On the 2D side, the game looks very stylish and bright while having a unified theme across its menus, text boxes, and art. The 2D and 3D parts of the game can clash at times. The character designs are also highly detailed and expressive. That said, the characters are often clad in outfits that may show a bit too much skin for some players.
Mary Skelter Finale‘s soundtrack is surprisingly good. Each dungeon has its own unique music as expected, and they each have unique battle themes as well. These tracks are catchy, exciting, and high energy. A flurry of violins mixed with piano, guitar, and heavy bass give each of the battles an orchestral rock feeling. While I’d expected a couple of standout tracks here and there, I wasn’t prepared for every single battle theme to be this great. Even as I spent hours in combat or cautiously wandering the creepy dungeons, I never once grew sick of the music.
Finally, the story and narrative overall is quite solid, but it’s difficult to talk about without the context of the first two games. While its predecessors can be trimmed down to 25~30 hours in Before Story, Mary Skelter Finale‘s tale unfolds over the course of 80 to 100 hours. Once Finale wraps up, there is also a True End DLC that is packaged in along with another visual novel centered around high school life. This too is canon. On top of that, the game includes two short novels, and there is a third novel available on the Mary Skelter Finale website. The amount of content in this franchise is simply overwhelming. That said, everything I’ve read has been expertly penned.
As expected, a game with massive 15-20 hour dungeons does fall victim to pacing issues. There can be a dozen hours between story scenes or events. This is slightly mitigated by scenes popping up back at the campsite after reaching new floors, but it creates another issue of multiple back to back scenes when you just want to head to the factory or shop. Additionally, in the Switch version, there is a dungeon that is actively painful to look at due to how bright it is. This dungeon gave me eye strain almost immediately, prompting me to turn the brightness on both my TV and my Switch down to almost minimum. Finally, there are some performance issues on Switch. Some dungeons have moments of slowdown when multiple traps are going off, though this is generally minor.
To loop back around to what I said in the beginning: I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started Mary Skelter Finale. I never expected I would willingly dive into two visual novels prior to even starting the game, nor did I expect my general issues with dungeon RPGs to be washed away. The characters are heartfelt, endearing, and memorable. The story is tragic and hopeless at times, only to turn around and become hopeful and positive seconds later. The combat is exciting, and I never thought I would be so engaged with the DRPG subgenre after years of not clicking with it. It’s a game that I’m certainly glad that I played, but I do find it difficult to recommend without a few caveats. If you decide to take the dive, be prepared for a notable time investment.