Death Mark is a new visual novel hybrid published by Aksys Games, and developed by Experience, a company with a history dominated by first-person dungeon crawlers. Death Mark is a deliberate Halloween 2018 release, and it’s a game dripping with Japanese horror conventions at every step. It’s also a game that strives to be more than a visual novel, with a set of interactive elements including choice, investigation, and even some striking, bizarre combat sequences. Death Mark also earns its M rating with enough spooky and gruesome imagery to stand out as a horror experience, but there’s also some weird moments that could make players feel uncomfortable for the wrong reasons.
The Clock’s Ticking
The Death Mark is the titular axis around which the game’s whole plot revolves around. It’s a mysterious, scar-like growth that has begun to appear on peoples’ bodied en-masse, and the recipient only has a limited time before it kills them violently. Somehow, you play as a person who stumbles into the situation to deal with the Death Mark, despite having no memories of how they got there, or how they got the Mark. With the help of a living doll that was the assistant of a popular occult researcher and a cast of supporting Death Mark victims, it’s up to you to find out how to beat the Death Mark, possibly even permanently.
You can customize the look of your character a little bit, but the majority of Death Mark sees you taking a partner with you to explore what are essentially a collection of haunted houses. Within each environment is an almost SCUMM-like investigation period, in which you find clues and items, and have a small menu of different ways to react to your surroundings. You trigger events, find solutions to locks and barricades, and of course, run into life or death situations that test your ability to pay attention and think quickly.
Life or Death
These moments are when Death Mark is at its most intense. As you explore an area, you’ll learn more about the “monster of the week” sort of situation. You’ll learn about the evil, paranormal force you’re looking for, how it operates, and the other dangers that can exist in that territory. Eventually, you’ll come across an enemy of sorts, and you’ll have to make split-second dialogue choices as a timer ticks down to a game over screen. Make the wrong choice and that’s it, you’re done. Make the right choice, and you’ll be safe again for a time.
Normally, I’m a bit down on pass/fail moments in horror games. I’m especially down on it these days, when games are increasingly about the spectacle and your emotional response, having to retry trial and error challenges can often kill that sense of tension. But in Death Mark, those challenges feel fair. You only have one timer that you have to make last through each chapter, but you can find items that restore your precious seconds. You get plenty of clues as to what the wrong choices to make would be before these encounters, and are often reminded, sometimes even in the middle of those scenes.
Basically, Death Mark ups the tension with that risk of instant death, but gives you tools to push back. This makes those tense moments peak with a sense of satisfaction as well when you nail the choices, and since it’s a visual novel, skipping through dialogue if you do lose isn’t so bad. It’s a good balance, and shows the developers considered the vibe.
Throwing Hands with Demons
Where Death Mark gets weird is its combat sections. I don’t want to jump too far into spoiler space, but as I alluded to before, each location you explore has its own “boss” of sorts, a paranormal entity that stalks your every move and eventually confronts you in a chapter-ending showdown. How these go down is similar to the life or death moments, in that while the action on screen is presented as combat, it’s more about making logical decisions based on the information you’ve been gathering. You take all the items you’ve found, look over your documents, and make you choices per the scenario’s mythology.
These confrontations are strange, not just because of how distinct they feel to play, but also because of how direct they are. Much of Death Mark is about building tension, maybe hitting you with a jump scare or two, but mostly keeping the real nasty stuff obscured or up to your imagination. Then, at the end, the big bad is just in your face, wobbling around with tweening animation loops that betray the lower budget reality of a visual novel. That said, as is the case with the life or death encounters, there is a sense of immediacy and dread to these moments that keeps you scrambling for the right answer.
One area that really needs a critical eye in Death Mark is how it presents its victims. This is a horror game that isn’t afraid to kill people, up to and including characters that would be untouchable in other, similar stories. While the visuals are limited throughout the game, much like something like Corpse Party, the visuals that do come are reserved for big moments, and many of those are all over the grotesque spectrum. But what makes me raise my eyebrow at Death Mark is almost every time something bad happens to a female character, the scenes are presented with an intense sexual energy that is often contextually and tonally whack, and feeling, well, creepy.
Not “creepy” in the fun horror way, but creepy in the way that the game is being aggressively horny during moments that really don’t need to be horny! It’s like, “yo check out how fucked up this girl is,” and she’s either dead or close to dead, but for some reason all her clothes are gone, everything is hanging out like we’re suddenly playing some eroge, except the context is all “scary, brutal ghostmurder,” and just, no thank you. Of course, there are plenty of other, much more “dignified” death scenes (especially when it comes to male characters, natch), which makes these moments stand out even more as either bizarre pandering attempts or someone on staff very publicly working out some kinks, if you feel me. That’s not to say there’s no room in horror for sexuality (quite the opposite!). But in this case, it is clumsy at best and at worst, and it undermines the strength of Death Mark otherwise with sloppy, pointless non-consensual imagery that reads as enthusiastic not by the fiction, but by the creative.
Death Mark is classic, Japanese, video game horror. It’s essentially a collection of ghost stories, wrapped up in a mysterious package and enhanced with investigative gameplay and life or death moments that test your logic and ability to pay attention. It’s more than a visual novel, although not all of its strange ideas land gracefully. And, it sometimes struggles to find its thematic voice, including, or especially, when Death Mark opts to take pleasure in baring its fangs at its women. Horror works often struggle to straddle such lines, but ultimately there is an element of responsibility to tackling certain subject material that I do not believe is handled with care here. On the other hand, Death Mark does nail its atmosphere of otherwordly unpredictability, looming dread, and urgency that sells its central plot quite well. Do approach Death Mark with caution, but if that approach does happen, know that there is play and design here that stands among the best of this year’s horror offerings.
Death Mark review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.