Long before the internet flooded us with previews, reviews, screenshots, trailers, let’s plays, and various other sources of information on video games, one of the most popular ways to pique interest in a particular title was also one of the most basic methods: its cover art. Games were often picked up or even outright purchased simply because of the appealing image on the front of their box, and I myself was guilty of that countless times as a child.
Cover art is also why I became interested in Death Mark. Developer Experience Inc. had caught my attention in recent years due to releases like Stranger of Sword City, but I neither knew of their involvement nor Death Mark’s style of gameplay was at first. All I knew was there, on the cover, was some sort of inhuman bride, staring into a phone booth on a dark Japanese street—and that’s all I needed to know.
I’m actually glad I went in with no further knowledge than that, because that meant I got to appreciate Death Mark’s gameplay twists even more than I would have otherwise. Things start out very much like a traditional Japanese visual novel: chunks of narrative laid atop a variety of painted backdrops, detailed character art popping up whenever you talk to an NPC, the occasional choice to make that doesn’t really matter in the long run, stuff like that. Things start to get much more interesting and varied once you head out into the world on your investigations, however.
What you’re investigating is a bizarre phenomenon that ends up bringing together a group of strangers in a struggle for survival: the titular “Death Mark.” For some reason, various people (including the game’s protagonist) now have a strange design burned into their skin somewhere on their bodies. It turns out that the Mark is the sign of being cursed by a vengeful spirit, it’ll bring both amnesia and later death to its host. That is, unless those afflicted can appease the spirit that birthed their particular Mark.
Finding out how to put those spirits to rest takes delving into their lives (and deaths). That’s done through exploring various locations, searching for clues or objects relating to each individual ghost. These segments play out more like what you’d find in a Phoenix Wright or Danganronpa release, where you poke around the environment in first person, looking at, touching, taking, or interacting with what you come across. The balance between these moments of gameplay and the exposition-heavy cutscenes is pretty good, and neither ever feels like it’s wearing out its welcome (a problem with some visual novels). Even though the locations you’ll visit are all stereotypical to Japanese horror—creepy school, creepy forest, and so on—I actually found them to be decently creepy without being a slog to get through (a problem with some horror games). Navigating those areas can be a bit rough at first, though, due to two small technical decisions. First, what you see on the mini map and on the main display area don’t always match up direction-wise, forcing you to pause for a moment to figure out what you need to push in order to go the way you want to go. Also, for reasons I can’t explain, you look around the environment with the left analog stick and move with the right—the opposite of nearly every other modern game out there. Both are easy enough to get over, but are two of a handful of elements that should have been tweakable via an options menu (which, as it is, only allows you to adjust audio volumes).
The true uniqueness of Death Mark starts with the partner system. For each chapter of the game, you’ll meet a small handful of people who were recently cursed with the Mark. When going out on investigations, you can pick only one person to accompany you, which will give you a different perspective on the exact same events. Sometimes, you’ll need a specific person with you to accomplish a specific task, but otherwise, it’s a good way to both add some replayability to the game, and make the overall experience feel a little more personal. You partner will then come in handy during the final confrontation with the spirits, which are turn-based battles where you combine items you’ve found with the knowledge you’ve learned to work out the proper way to put the undead at peace.
On a gameplay level, these encounters aren’t groundbreaking or anything, but they’re neat. I certainly wasn’t expecting boss battles in a game like this, yet they serve as a satisfying final puzzle to cap off each chapter. Depending on what you do, these spirit battles can have a “bad” or a “good” end, and something I appreciated was that figuring out both of those solutions were satisfying. The game also offers up “Live or Die” choices at times—sometimes connected with the boss, other times not—where you’ll need to answer questions quickly (and correctly) or lose Soul power. (Soul power basically being your health meter, so if it runs out, you’ll need to restart that encounter.)
Too often, challenges like these have answers that are either too obvious or too esoteric, but Death Mark finds a middle point where you’re forced to use your brain but the answer is there if you just think about it. Sadly, that isn’t true in every case. Both in those boss encounters and out, there were a few puzzles where I felt like I must either be stupid or have missed something, because I hadn’t even the foggiest idea of where to pull the answer from. To make myself feel a bit better, I’ll put part of the blame on the one aspect of Death Mark I found flawed: the obnoxious over-reliance on the “notes where random chunks of letters were taken out of random words” clue type. Used sparingly in games, they’re fine, but oh lord did I get sick of seeing the exact same type of hint over and over and over and over.
The true value of those spirit confrontations, and the individual chapters overall, comes not in their gameplay, but in the stories that they tell. Death Mark starts off a little slow, and a little stereotypical, but about halfway through the first chapter, I realized that something rather interesting was starting to build in the narrative. What originally seems to be a simple “get rid of the ghosts” adventure isn’t that at all, as there comes to be a deeper emotional connection to much of what’s going on. While I don’t want to spoil any of the specifics, I found the fate of some of the spirits to be utterly tragic, pushing me to confront them not out of a desire to “beat” them but to instead help them. Those feelings aren’t universal, however. In one chapter, I actually hated the ghost and just wanted it gone; in another, my motivation was more about stopping the curse and saving my new friends, and less about the individual behind those problems. From another developer, this could have been a straightforward story about a bunch of demonic entities that need vanquishing, so I came away both surprised and impressed with the development team’s seeming desire to not just take the easy route.
Death Mark is relatively short, it’s rather low-key in its gameplay ambitions, it could easily have presented bigger and more fleshed-out versions of its ideas, and I’m not totally happy with the way it wrapped up in the end. And yet, the game accomplishes what it sets out to do rather fantastically, in a surprisingly emotional experience that’s long enough to become engrossed in the story but not so long that it wears said story too thin. I was surprised—and even at times frightened—by Death Mark, and glad that its blood-stained beauty wasn’t simply cover deep.
|Publisher: Aksys Games • Developer: Experience Inc • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.31.2018|
Death Mark may seem at first like a shallow horror take on the Japanese visual novel/adventure genre, but the deeper you dig into its tale of wayward spirits and cursed bystanders, the more its brutality is mixed with beauty. While it could have done more with the ideas it builds upon, it still results in an unexpectedly captivating experience that stands out from the crowd.
|The Good||A (mostly) engrossing ride that can hit you on a deeply emotional level at moments you might not be expecting, capped off by some fantastic character and background art.|
|The Bad||A frustrating lack of customization in the options menu, and an equally frustrating amount of “missing word pieces” clues.|
|The Ugly||In what I assume was a shortcut for dealing with the uncertainty of which partner the player has with them at any given time, your teammates are always referred to as “they” instead of “he” or “she”. It’s not really ugly though, just… weird.|
|Death Mark is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for Switch. Review code was provided by Aksys Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|