Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS Vita
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release: 31st October 2018
With Halloween approaching, video game publishers release a giant wave of horror games as well, together with the much anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 (review soon-ish). However, despite this flood, there are a few games you might not have heard about, despite their interesting premise, one of those is Death Mark. Another visual novel which also comes out on the Switch, combining reading and gameplay while also promising an engaging horror story. What could you ask more?
The mysterious Mark is rumoured to be the mark of a ghost, whoever has one of them is destined to lose all their memories and die in a few days, we are one of those people. Already forgotten everything about us, including our name, we arrive at a mansion, hoping to find a way to escape fate. Unfortunately, the only things there are a talking doll and more individuals with the same fate. In order to fight their death, they have to discover the origin of their Marks before sundown or die, as the doll soon tells them.
Sounds quite interesting, doesn´t it? Naturally, the tale about the “Mark bearers”, why they´re fated to die and all those mysteries can establish a promising foundation, from the get-go. Yet, for better or worse, Death Mark doesn´t really have an overarching plot at first, since it decided to divide its story into 5 distinct episodes, revolving around different ghosts and areas, as well as their destinies and why they became such supernatural beings. Similar to episodic series, only the core protagonists like our nameless main character stay in place. Though at the same time, they carry over core concepts too, like the ever-present theme of plants and roses playing a big part in people´s death. So, especially earlier on, this can become quite confusing, since the game´s different parts never feel like separate things, despite playing out completely unique. It´s a weird mix, that somehow seems half-baked and an in-between approach between filling the 20 hours with one connected plot and several different short stories.
Nonetheless, the actual quality of each chapter is something completely else, because I´m quite a huge fan of a lot Death Mark does in them. Each one of them consists of visual novel and adventure elements, so you´re gonna explore the area a ghost inhabits, like a school, while being interrupted by quite long conversations in-between. The writing is the biggest reason why the whole thing works so well: It can create a very dense, eerie atmosphere, that´s also distinct in each chapter. Be it the doll and her emotion-less, synthetic dialogues, the ghost´s fate or the constant feeling of approaching death. It isn´t anything truly unique but executed very well and pretty much delivers on every single thing you could want from a horror visual novel, be it tragedy or brutality.
Unfortunately, since it relies on many stereotypes, characters, in particular, it can´t quite leave the impact it could have. For example, none of the side cast members receive a lot of meaningful, unpredictable characterization and also present traits that everyone familiar with horror could predict. Combined with the rather foreseeable ghost stories themselves, the only real unique thing about Death Mark´s tales is the fact it vowes roses and plants into the mix in a pretty interesting fashion, which can often provide enough new mysteries to keep even the most experienced horror players busy and distracted from the almost too classic foundation.
It also doesn´t offer many choices, only letting you chose between the character who will accompany you and maybe suffer form a horrible mistake, but never something truly meaningful in the story. There´s one thing though: The Live or Death choices, regularly presented to you in ghost encounters. When you feel an icy touch on your shoulder or have to confront an evil entity, you will have to choose between 2-4 actions, that determine your fate … or so. In reality, those multiple choice sequences only decide between getting a Game Over screen or continuing the story, without offering any real kind of new depth. Especially since reloading and skipping can take quite a while if you selected the wrong one, they became more annoying than interesting.
Yet, a lot of your time will also be spent exploring each level, as Death Mark features surprisingly long “adventure” sequences, where you have to find items to unlock new doors or find optional talismans to increase your soul energy. Honestly, they work. They´re neither exceedingly well-done nor horribly bad, offering sufficiently sized areas with enough to discover without getting lost or confused. Occasionally, there may be the moment where you don´t know what to do next, because of a box being hidden away in the darkest corner possible but overall, I enjoyed them for what they were. If only traversing areas wouldn´t take so long.
Additionally, each chapter ends in a “boss fight”, where you have to battle the ghost with the knowledge you gained of them throughout the level in a turn-based fight, which is pretty neat! Sure, if you know their weakness, it pretty much becomes a “use this combo every round” until they came near enough, so you can use items to banish them into their world. None of this is really challenging as the game constantly highlights important knowledge in each dialogue and giving you hints in the fight itself. Nonetheless, it´s a neat way to end each ghost hunting, that offers the right difficulty for being in a visual novel.
Last but not least, let´s thematise Death Mark´s two-sided art style. On the one hand, I love the character designs, as they create this unnerving vibe through their sticky edges and cool colours. Generally speaking, everything about the characters or terrifying aspects looks really great, since those are full of personality and offer a style not seen in many titles, able to actually be scary at times.
On the other hand, the many adventure passages often tend to look … awfully normal? Every area features the generic style and design you can see in every horror title or even normal visual novel, lacking the truly great aspects of the character design and other. They feel more or less mass-produced rather than created with time, to build bigger levels. Additionally, the ghost battles drag the whole thing down as well, due to the fact every ghost´s 2D drawing is animated there, with varying results and sometimes animations can look very janky. Top it off with a very standard “mysterious” soundtrack and you got a good looking but not really consistently unique title. In exchange, it doesn´t drain much of the Switch´s battery life, never lets it ramp up its fan and runs simply great!
All in all, I still enjoyed Death mark because there aren´t really many visual novel/adventure horror titles out there and it does a pretty good job at delivering. Sure, it´s a very standardized experience in many aspects, offering some junky visuals here and there and a quite mediocre adventure aspect. However, while the price is debatable, it certainly is something I wouldn´t want to miss.
[A Review Code was provided by Aksys Games]