Death Mark Review: Just Scary Enough
Horror visual novels are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine — I've played several over the years and enjoy the genre, but there are not many situations where I'll say I play these games.
Most people have no idea they're even a thing in the first place, and once you explain what they are, you often get some confused looks. Why not just read a book?
To be clear, Death Mark isn't quite a visual novel. While you do spend a large portion of your in-game time reading, you must also investigate environments manually as you would in a dungeon crawler. Instead of fighting, you're looking for clues about the origin of antagonistic spirits and how to defeat them.
Once you've gathered the tools or information you need, you can then face the spirits head-on. If anything, this is really a horror adventure game at heart.
This flow of gameplay is very different from genre staples Corpse Party or any of the others we've been lucky enough to see in English from the PSP to now. It's what makes Death Mark stand out as an introductory title to the horror VN/adventure genre since it does have actual gameplay, even if it is mostly shuffling from one screen to the next moving a flashlight around.
Removing the Mark
I'll be refraining from dropping any real spoilers here, so don't worry.
The main character of Death Mark must investigate the origins of a mysterious mark that's appeared on his arm; conveniently, there's a hefty dose of amnesia involved.
It's a simple premise that propels itself in predictable ways from the beginning to the end of the game, but that does not mean the player is left wanting. You'll be investigating a lot more than just your mark, that's for sure.
Each of the game's chapters tasks you with investigating and pacifying specific spirits, each with its own motivations for clinging to this life. The backstories of the spirits themselves are probably the most interesting part of the game for me. They have just enough detail to pull the reader in, but they leave out enough that the ol' noggin can fill in the blanks and craft something better than the game could.
I came to feel more for the spirits one way or the other far more than any of the other Marked Ones I came across, with one spirit I particularly detested.
Investigations themselves play out half like a dungeon crawler and half like an adventure game. You move from screen to screen looking for clues and items you can use to pacify the spirit once you find it. And don't worry, the game won't toss you into pacification before you're ready.
Looking for clues and items requires you to manually move your flashlight around the area looking for anything that catches your eye. Unlike classic adventure games, anything you can interact with sparkles. This means you don't have to swivel your flashlight around and mash the confirm button. It's a huge plus for this game since having to test things blindly would hold Death Mark back a bit too much to recommend.
Taking another cue from the dungeon crawler genre, pacification in Death Mark is more of an active affair than you might expect.
As you explore an area and investigate a spirit, you'll come across clues about how to fight it. This is the one part of the game that requires some logical thought — though you do have to use some items to interact with the environment, those instances are generally easy enough to figure out.
Going up against and pacifying the game's angry spirits properly requires figuring out the order you need to use individual or combinations of items in turn-based "combat." You'll run into a ton of insta-deaths and do-overs if you don't heed the clues you find.
Pacifying spirits isn't the only thing that will lead you to a a quick death. Answer wrong during one of the game's many Live or Die sequences, and you'll have to start the sequence over from the beginning. For you as the player, these are simply multiple-choice questions.
The Live or Die sequences are easily my least favorite part of Death Mark. You use Spirit Power (HP) in these sequences, which is drained as you take the time to answer the questions.
Despite the fact that you can bolster your Spirit Power, most bad answers in Live or Die simply kill you outright, rather than drain your Spirit Power. Your Spirit Power isn't used for pacification, either. It's only used for Live or Die, and mostly just used as a timer, all of which is a little disappointing.
Each of the game's chapters also has a good or bad ending, depending on how you finished the spirit off. As for what that affects, that's up for you to figure out.
Presentation means even more in horror games and movies than with other genres (don't quote me on this), so how well does Death Mark present itself?
First is the game's art style; if you're like me, you were probably drawn in by the cover and further enticed by the overall art style. There are not a lot of CGs (still image) sequences, but those that are present are mostly very well drawn and detailed.
You get some good looks at the spirits in some CGs, and some are just fanservice. If you've played this genre before, you know the drill.
The game's graphical style is perfectly suitable and the environments are very well drawn, though I do wish there was a bit more variety within each area. Each time I noticed some screens within an area were basically the same, I felt a little pang of disappointment. The same picture with slight changes is a little too common of an occurrence for my tastes.
There isn't much memorable here music-wise, but the ambient or scary sounds featured in the game sound good and very much do the job.
The translation is one thing I really want to go ham over, but I'll restrain myself— a bit.
Death Mark's localization is sort of on par with what one would expect out of a PlayStation RPG game in the late '90s, which is to say it's riddled with typos and simplifications that don't do the script any favors.
I am not totally sure how many typos I came across while playing Death Mark, but it was enough that I actively noticed, and it really started to bother me about halfway through.
This is pretty disappointing for a game you primarily read. It's not just in dialogue that you find typos, you'll come across them in item descriptions, too.
Maybe it's because of the way the game was built, but the dialogue in Death Mark also defaults "him"/"her" to "they" and "his"/"hers" to "their" when referring to your partners or what they're doing. It's like the entire game reads incredibly unnaturally, no matter the partner.
The Japanese language doesn't use personal pronouns very often, so it's very possible the player's dialogue in the Japanese version is exactly the same for both partners in the vast majority of scenarios. This would explain why "they" and "their" are the only pronouns used when referring to partners, but I'm not even sure if that's the case or whether it's just a lazy localization.
Despite its faults, Death Mark is still an engaging play if you're on the market for a little horror. Though its localization leaves something to be desired, it's one of the few games in the horror visual novel/adventure genre to be found on the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.
This is one of the few games I took a million screenshots of during play, just to add some cool images to my stockpile and remember the (spooky) good times.
There are plenty of surprises to be found I did not touch on here because it's just better to find them yourself. It's better to let the game feed you at its own pace, rather than having some review tell you what's on the menu.
I would recommend Death Mark to Japanese horror fans and curious parties alike, but at a lower price point. It just needs more content for me to recommend it at $50. Another chapter, better writing, more variety, anything. It needs a little something to make it memorable, something that it just doesn't currently have.
- Great art
- Interesting story you'll want to see the end of
- Unique dungeon crawler-style adventure game
- Figuring out the strategy for spirit pacification can be pretty satisfying
- Not the best localization on the block
- Immemorable locations and characters
- A large portion of the text makes you wait for it to scroll rather than allowing you to press X (PS4) or A (Switch) to show it all at once, making the game longer than it needs to be
You can grab Death Mark on the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, or the PlayStation Vita.