Japanese developer Experience Inc. has worked on some memorable DRPGs including Stranger of Sword City, and Death Mark is their attempt at a horror-themed visual novel, so it sounded intriguing at first. The truth is, this is essentially a visual novel that explicitly lays out every detail with written text but with some of its design rooted in the DRPG genre. It is easily the best work of Experience Inc. by far, and I don’t say it lightly. It is a well-crafted story that is essentially a set of ghost tales where for most of the time you are simply investigating the mystery behind them. This might sound like an investigative game, but this is just a minor part of what makes Death Mark so exciting and different from other traditional experience.
Death Mark begins as a standard visual novel but it soon starts presenting layers of mystery one after another, maintaining your interest and causing you to ask questions. These questions will be eventually answered but a big draw of Death Mark as a visual novel is that there is consistently a sense of mystery surrounding its story. You play as a user-created custom character with a limited set of customization, restricting the ways you can personalize his appearance. It doesn’t matter much, though, because his appearance is not that meaningful for the choices that you make in the story.
Most of the ghost stories that you will experience in Death Mark stay firmly rooted in the Japanese culture, so it won’t really work as effectively with the localization. Despite this difficulty, the writers have tried their best to keep up the spirit of the original writing intact and even if some flaws are noticeable in the localization; the work done here by them is notable. I noticed they employed some clever tricks to get around the tricky localization e.g. using a gender-neutral word or simplifying the puzzles which rely on language and knowledge of Japan so the hints are easy to figure out.
Death Mark offers some beautifully drawn visuals in scenes where you witness a key story moment. It is the art style that works great here and helps set up the atmosphere. Some of the artwork feels grotesque due to the violence represented in them, but there are some sequences where you can also notice sexually explicit artwork which features suggestive content. This is something that has carried over from the earlier work of the developer, and it is not going to sit comfortably with most people. The over-the-top gore and erotic content can stop most from attempting this visual novel.
In Death Mark, the plot revolves around ghost stories where you meet various characters who show as a victim of a curse, also called the Death Mark. Whoever has this mark will end up dying in a violent way. The lead character himself is also cursed and suffers from amnesia so he has no idea of what happened to him. This strange Death Mark displays as a scar-like tattoo on wrist. It is typically given by a ghost haunting a particular place of interest. In order to shed it, you have to go there to find their backstory or origins that help in locating a weakness against them. Therefore, you are essentially going to haunted locations while tagging along with a partner which depends on your choice.
When I said this has incorporated some elements of a DRPG, I was talking exclusively about the navigation. Whenever you traverse a scene to investigate and explore around, it is usually presented in first person view with a map that responds to directional button presses. You can go to any of the four directions depending on the map making it feel like a DRPG, but instead of turn-based random battles, you can utilize the camera to look around and discover clues which usually start to glow when you identify them. You can also recover items this way and combined with the clues, they are vital for the last stage of each story segment.
Every time you get the choice to leave for a haunted place, you can take a partner together when exploring these locations. They are also cursed with the Death Mark and depending on who you will take, they will help in the investigation, offer new story events or alter the ending. If you make a choice, you will have to stick with it so keep that in mind when picking them up. It is possible to involve someone who has never visited the location, instead of being familiar with them, and it can lead to some fascinating discoveries made as you explore around together.
In Death Mark, you are frequently presented with a decision of ‘Live or Die’ which follows up with a multi-choice question. You have to carefully read everything to look up the hint to the correct answer, and if you fail to do so, the game can end forcing you to load the previous checkpoint. Thankfully, you can pick the incorrect answer two times before failing, therefore, if you select a wrong choice at first, you can still come out clear. These situations are exciting but dying and then going through the same dialogue again is frustrating because of the lack of dialogue skip option.
The last stage of each story is usually when you end up confronting the ghost. This is the crucial stage to the game because until then, you are simply exploring around the locations ranging from a school to forest, and finding clues for the ghost which is haunting them. Once you are near the end, it will lead to a ‘boss fight’ with the ghost which plays out in a turn-based way. You are not really injuring the ghost, but relatively using all the clues and items that you have picked along the journey to identify the weakness of the ghost.
Ghosts are traditionally associated with something frightening, but in Death Mark, you will often sympathize with their cause, because they are hapless victims in some cases. These unfortunate souls stay trapped forever and you end up feeling like a savior that has to free them from eternal suffering and pain. The ghost stories are not only disturbing, but there is always some emotional cause in their story that better flesh out their character.
Despite my issues with the imagery used for some of the deaths, I found Death Mark a great visual novel overall that feels like a refreshing change of pace from the traditional mystery novels. It offers you multiple endings depending on the choices made during the game’s scenarios. There is a suitable amount of replay value here, but the localization could have done better with some more polish.
Death Mark Review (Switch)
Game Reviewed on: Switch
Game description: A strange rumor is spreading in Tokyo’s H city - those who possess the Mark will die. Unexpectedly appearing on the body, a grotesque birthmark, the person who has the Mark will die from unknown causes. Deprived of your memories, you arrived at a mansion rumored to protect the bearers of the Mark. As the doors swing open, the countdown to death has already begun...
Final Score - 8/108/10
Death Mark feels genuinely fresh and absolutely shocking at times. It captures your attention with its psychological gore and then surprises you with the way the plot is laid out. This is not a visual novel for the light-hearted, but as a horror-themed game, it deserves a place near the top of the list. The atmosphere, sense of dread, the relationship between characters, it is all handled exceptionally well with multiple endings giving it excellent replay value.