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Posted on Oct 24th 2019 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under visual horror, playstation vita, playstation 4, nintendo switch, ps vita, ps4, switch, visual novel, horror

Death Mark is a horror visual novel released in June 2017 in Japan. It was released in the West on Halloween in 2018. This game was originally released on the Playstation Vita and had later released on the Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch in Japan. When the game came to the West, the game launched simultaneously on all three of those platforms, followed by a later PC release in April 2019. A few months after this PC release the title was rebranded and became Spirit Hunter: Death Mark. Due to the confusion this could cause, the original name is being used for this review.

Death Mark was developed by Experience Inc. an obscure Japanese developer that was founded after another obscure developer named Michaelsoft went bankrupt. Michaelsoft developed a couple of Wizardry dungeon crawling spinoffs in the mid-2000s on the Playstation 2 before they folded. Until Death Mark, Experience had also only made dungeon crawlers, with their most successful game being Demon Gaze for the Vita.

Death Mark starts off with the main character making his way through Tokyo to a strange mansion, seeking answers about the odd, scar-like shape on his wrist and the local rumors that have started in recent months about this death mark. He seeks out a woman named Saya Kujou who has been researching these strange marks. Upon arriving to the mansion, the man finds a life-size talking doll named Mary, Saya Kujou's dead body, and because he's an amnesiac who cannot even remember his own name. His amnesia is a side effect of the Death Mark. Shortly after this meeting, a couple of other marked people show up to the Kujou mansion, a gifted grade school aged schoolboy named Tsukasa and a high school aged girl named Moe who is interested in the occult. Both have had strange supernatural experiences recently, and the three of them decide to check out the rumors of an abandoned, haunted grade school.

The player can choose one partner to explore each location with. Mary warns the player that too many mark bearers in any one place will attract extra attention from any spirit potentially haunting the place. On the surface, it seems like this is meant to encourage replayability, to see what different characters say in the same situations. However, each partner has their own set of stats and there are certain points during the story where a specific partner must be chosen based on their stats or an item that only they can use properly, which seems to clash with the idea of replayability. Exploring the various locations in the game feels much like exploring a first person tile based dungeon crawler. A certain area or a single room represents one square on the map, and each square is connected either by open air in the case of hallways and corridors, or a door in the case of a room. There are also certain tests called Live or Die segments that the ghost of an area puts the player through. Three options are available to select and the player has a pool of spiritual power that acts like a timer. Old talismans can be found throughout the game that add to the pool of spirit power.

Items must be collected in each chapter that are used to solve the mystery of the spirit. Once the spirit has been defeated then those it marked will see their marks vanish. There are a few occasions where a partner is found and the immediate spirit is not the one that marked them, so they end up sticking around for multiple chapters. The main mystery of the game turns into the player continuing to fight off these spirits while trying to get rid of their own mark, and they just seem to keep failing. It feels that many characters do not really have enough time to be fully built. Since only one partner can be taken with the player it feels like one misses out on chances for development, especially considering the forced partnerships that are spread through the game.

Death Mark has amazing art design. Each location visited is designed to be creepy and unnerving, and its not just the graphics that push their design. The audio design of each chapter adds to the atmosphere excellently. On top of the ambient audio, the bits of music spread throughout the game is all great and fitting for the somber atmosphere. As players explore each area and swing their flashlight around the screen, they'll be greeted with the surprise appearance of ghosts and other strange sights. Added to this are the array of strange sounds that will pop up when a player least expects it, such as the creaking sound of a door opening or closing, or the sound of a bird screaming into the night. Each one of the noises made seems fitting for each area visited by the player and his partners.

Death Mark starts quite strong, with a great first ghost, but the following two are gradually weaker. Those two weaker ghosts are less original, and the third ghost does not have enough time to really be built up properly. The final ghost is quite strong in terms of design and theme, but its not seen once until the final confrontation, leaving it the least tense chapter despite this ending being hinted at and built up throughout the game. The strong momentum at the start just stutters and the game never feels like its getting revved up until the end. It's a bit of a shame that a game that starts with such a strong and rather unique ghost story ends up becoming more predictable, and sadly, this ends up with the player starting to feel comfortable in the atmosphere; horror is not the type of experience where the player should feel comfortable.

There has been much praise for the game's multiple endings, but there are really only two. The normal ending, which will be achieved if even one partner dies, and the good ending, which sees every partner survive the game. The general lack of gameplay mechanics likely hinders the game's ability to keep up its creepy momentum in the long run. As a result, the rather unique combat system is not really enough of an addition to bring Death Mark into the upper echelon of horror classics. Death Mark was successful enough to spawn a sequel, Spirit Hunter: NG, which released in the West in October of 2019.

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