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Review #024: Death Mark (Nintendo Switch)

Reviewed By: John B.

Developed By: Experience Inc Published By: Aksys Games Category: Adventure, Horror, Puzzle Release Date: 10.31.18

Download Death Mark from the Nintendo eShop here.

Purchase Death Mark (Regular Edition) from Amazon here.

Purchase Death Mark (Limited Edition) from Amazon here.

Experience Inc is a Japanese developer that I’m only minimally familiar with. I’ve only played Stranger of Sword City and Operation Abyss, but their brand of dungeon crawling RPGs is definitely one of my main areas of interest. Their newest project, Death Mark for the Nintendo Switch (and other consoles, I guess, but check the website title if you forgot why you’re here), is an intriguing combination of their usual dungeon exploration fare and a visual novel adventure game. It turns out to be a perfect combination to accompany a creepy, moody, horror story.

Marked For Death

It was a dark and stormy night… well, actually, there was no storm. And nights are, by definition, dark, so that’s pretty redundant. I’ll start again; one night, a man is walking home when he passes by two schoolgirls talking about a local urban legend. A librarian at their school had been killed shortly after discovering a strange mark on her arm. Once they finish their story, we flash-forward to another night… or possibly later that night. Our protagonist can’t remember. He is in front of a quiet mansion, with one light on in the window and a throbbing pain in his arm. On his wrist, where the pain is centered, is an odd scar he doesn’t remember being there before. It looks like a bite mark. He enters the mansion to find help, and what he finds instead is a dead body and the mystery of the Death Mark. Can he unravel it before it unravels him?

Every Chapter Could Be Your Last

The story takes place across several different chapters. Each chapter sees you and an evolving cast of supporting characters attempting to investigate rumors of troubled spirits that curse unsuspecting victims with Death Marks of their own. Every angry spirit you calm brings you one step closer to finding out where your mark came from, while at the same time saving your companions from a grisly fate. Every chapter has three supporting characters cursed with their own mark; if you figure out how to fully appease the spirit, they will all survive. But if you make a mistake, and destroy the spirit without quelling its anger, then one or more of your companions may pay the ultimate price.

Characters come and go from the game throughout the story; most of them wisely choose to move on from the mystery after having their marks removed. Some are compelled to stay for multiple chapters for one reason or another. Most characters have a secret backstory that has led them to their present state; unraveling their story is part of the fun of every mystery. Sometimes their tales are integral to the chapter, but sometimes they’re just there for some added drama. Either way, the supporting characters do their part to crank up the suspense of the story.

Play With The Lights Off

Death Mark’s gameplay is half visual novel, half point and click adventure. Every chapter, you are brought to a new location reported to be haunted. Your job is to navigate the location, screen by screen, and investigate each area for clues and tools. Along the way, the characters talk with each other, and sometimes these conversations can provide clues for how to advance the story. You can only bring one character with you at a time because reasons, which I found disappointing because the character interactions are a great strength of the story.

Live or Die

Along the way you will encounter timed choice events that result in your death if you fail. You start with 1000 Spirit Power each chapter, but you can supplement that with talismans found in your exploration. When an event starts, your spirit power ticks away until you make a choice. The right choice results in no further loss of SP; the wrong choice can drastically reduce SP or even bring about an instant game over. If you pay attention to the story and are thorough in your investigations, most of these events are easy to navigate. Some items necessary to pass these tests are missable, so you have to be diligent with your exploration. If you die, you have the option to start from a save or restart the event, so you don’t have to go that far back in the story if you don’t want to. One of the game’s drawbacks is that you can only save from your base of operations, not in the field, so savescumming isn’t an option. If you have to go back and find something you’ve missed, this can mean a lot of retracing your steps and replaying events.

Who You Gonna Call?

Each chapter culminates in a showdown with the spirit who has cursed your companions. Using what you have learned about how the spirit was born, you have to use the items you have collected to resolve its unfinished business and dispel its anger. The fights generally involve the spirit advancing towards you while attacking in turns. You have to use items to deflect or prevent these attacks until the spirit is close enough for you to figure out what to use to bring it peace. There are multiple ways to defeat each spirit, so you don’t actually have to bring it peace; you can just kill it, but that gets you a bad ending. Killing a spirit usually ends with one or more of your companions dying. Having dead companions affects what ending you get at the end of the game; the “best” ending is the one in which you save all of your companions.

Atmosphere Is Important

There isn’t a whole lot of depth to Death Mark’s graphics; like most visual novels, there is no real animation. The backgrounds are gorgeously drawn and detailed; more importantly, the settings are creepy as heck and the art does a brilliant job conveying that. Characters have a few different portraits for different emotions, but only like three or four. Still, the characters are well-designed and the art style is similarly detailed and gorgeous. The game does manage to do a lot with a little in terms of animation; as you shine your flashlight around each area, sometimes you’ll get a little jump scare when an unexpected spirit pops into view. The spirits have creepy designs, and get creepier the closer they get. By the time they’re right on top of you, when they are revealed in all their grotesque glory, the true majesty of their macabre design is fully evident.

The game’s audio design is pretty minimalist. There is almost no voice acting save for a few lines during each character’s introduction and a blood-curdling scream in they die. The game generally eschews background music in favor of eerie creaks and groans appropriate to the location; floorboards creaking in an old house, or wind howling through trees in the forest. This really helps to build a foreboding atmosphere for the game, contributing to a compellingly dark game experience. What music there is, is tense and dramatic, fitting for the game’s story.

Mark This One For Purchase

Death Mark is, from start to finish, a fantastic game. The setting is dark and familiar without being corny or clichéd. The story is muted, and believes that what you hold back can be just as scary as what you choose to show. It has a true understanding of how to build a horror game around a solid story and tense atmosphere instead of blood and titillation. My only complaint is that it’s over.

Final Score: 10/10

Download Death Mark from the Nintendo eShop here.

Purchase Death Mark (Regular Edition) from Amazon here.

Purchase Death Mark (Limited Edition) from Amazon here.

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*Review Code Provided By MMPR

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