THIS REVIEW CONTAINS IMAGES THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR SOME AUDIENCES. ALSO . . . SPOILERS
Full disclosure, I’m not a fan of graphic novel video games because I find their stories stretched to breaking point and their gameplay is thin as paper. Taking twenty plus hours for the first plot point to kick start and having the pulse-pounding gameplay of pressing a single button for ten billionth time, isn’t really appealing. If I find myself repulsed by graphic novel games, then why did I buy Death Mark?
Well, two reasons. First: The art style is unique. When I looked at the screenshots; it doesn’t look like a typical overly vibrant graphic novel game. Second: It’s horror. I am a horror enthusiast and I never played a horror graphic novel game, so it seemed up my alley. I did set my expectations down low because of my viewpoints, but color me surprised that I ended up falling in the love with Death Mark. A surprising well-crafted horror game with an interesting plot, characters, gameplay, and art style.
Death Mark is a Japanese survival horror graphic novel game released back in June 2017 on the PS Vita. The Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 received the game in 2018. However, the English release happened later that year in October. Death Mark centers around a protagonist that lost all of his memory. He finds himself at an unknown mansion and a mark that resembles a bite mark on his right wrist.
Shortly after, a mysterious talking doll named Mary, informs him of his current state. Turns out, the mark he has came from a spirit that holds a grudge. The mark will slowly take away memories, so you can suffer the disparity of losing oneself. If he doesn’t appease or destroy the spirit before dawn, he will die. With no memory of the spirit that cursed him, he is forced to help others that carry the mark as well.
Story (Spoiler Free)
There are five chapters total in the game (six if you play the Steam or PS4 version) and each chapter has a slow burn to it. Each chapter introduces new characters, setting, and enraged spirit that fits in the overall story arch. Every chapter has an interesting mystery that requires you to be Sherlock Holmes because overlooking any vital information could lead you to a bad ending. You must go over everything with a fine tooth comb. From reading scattered notes, items descriptions, and character dialogues. Deciphering them to find hidden clues about the spirits and how to appease them.
Each chapter has a unique spirit that is absolutely haunting. Learning the spirits tragic fate at times was a bit heartbreaking and made me empathize with them. I wanted to help them achieve peace and when I succeeded, it felt good. Despite learning the spirit’s grudge, you never learn how they died. The game expects you to piece that together with all the clues handed to you. Giving each chapter replay value to see if you missed any clues.
I stated earlier that you can get a bad ending in a chapter. A bad ending is where you vanquish a spirit with violence. If you perform that, the character that is currently assisting you will be gruesomely murdered by the spirits remaining power. Leaving everyone in a state of fear and grief. This will change the upcoming dialogue and your final outcome of the story. When I got the bad ending, I quickly reloaded my save file and figured how to get the good ending.
All the characters you encounter are likable and I didn’t want to see them die. Each character brings their own thoughts to the table and helps to decipher certain puzzles, so this adds more replay value to see who works best in each area. All though, it can be annoying that you have the wrong character for the scenario and it forces to use a certain character or be forever stuck. Therefore, you reload a previous save file or backtrack to the beginning to swap out.
You are presented with dialogue choices, but it slightly alters your character’s interaction. Nothing too substantial. Fleshing these out would increase the replay value to see how this will morph your character and the people around you. In some dialogue, you will see translation errors. They aren’t horrendous, but it can make some dialogue confusing to read. For example, the word, “they”, is used for “he” or “she”. One time I couldn’t even make out what they were trying to say. Try to decipher it in the image down below. These translation errors aren’t a deal breaker, but can be off-putting.
Detective Mode Activate (Gameplay)
The gameplay is essentially a point and click adventure that has you look for key items and clues. Again, these types of games aren’t my cup of tea. However, Death Mark utilizes it’s gameplay mechanics very well that I found myself absorbed. Searching every crevice to find hidden clues, secrets, notes, and even jump scares. Every item/note you collect can be vital for a boss encounter, live or die scenarios, or a puzzle.
Of course, this being a point and click adventure game; there will be a plethora of puzzles to solve. These puzzles are mentally challenging and do require you to look through your resources. Some puzzles will require you to look through old dialogue, decipher a cryptic note, or combing through certain items together. When I finally figured out the puzzle; I would usually have the Eureka effect. However, there is one puzzle I still don’t understand. There is a moment where you have to face a ghost dog and you survive by calling out its name. You have an item called: Dog Collar. It gives you the name, but the beginning letter is differently shaped.
I believed it was an upside down “L”, so the name is Lenta, correct? Nope. Not going to spoil the answer. I did search far and wide to find the correct answer, but nothing popped up. It was a crap shoot on what’s the correct answer, so I ended up dying twice in the Live or Die scenario before getting it right. I think this might be a translation error, but I can’t confirm this.
Live or Die scenarios are quick, rapid sections of choices. You are required to remember important dialogue or use a key item to survive. If you pick the wrong answer, you will die. Unless you have enough soul power to survive. The game will always give you 1000 soul power and that will rapidly drain during a Live or Die scenario. If hit zero, then you are dead. It’s crucial that you find talismans to increase your soul power. These moments can be very tense, but they are a one hat trick. Once you know the answers; these moments lose all tension next time around.
Easily my favorite aspect of the gameplay was the spirit battles. You must use everything you learned and gathered to put the spirit to rest or destroy it. Destroying the spirit is much easier than putting it to rest, but that will give you the bad ending. Putting the spirit to rest requires a lot of thought, going back through all the notes and clues, and combining items. In these fights, you will have a partner with you, but be careful because some can only use certain items, so you want to plan ahead. After the confrontation (good or bad), the game will give you the full story that holds the answer for the good ending. It won’t blatantly tell you, you still have to piece it together.
Death Mark art style is absolutely eye candy. The environments are eerie, very detailed, and effective. All the more effective thanks to the well-composed soundtrack and design. The majority of spirits design is disturbing or frightening. Sadly, all the characters only have two static images to express emotion. A huge variety of character emotes could of shorten down the exposition dumps and more to admire.
The art style is horrifyingly beautiful that will stick with you, but there are three things that irked me. For starters, the fan service. I don’t mind a little stimulation as long as it’s not tasteless. For a bizarre reason, there are images of half-naked women in an undesirable state.
There is no story or context on why she’s in this predicament. The female in the above image never addressed why she was in her undergarments. She looks like she’s in bondage while receiving sexual pleasure from it. The scene is supposed to be disturbing, but I can’t stop wondering why she looks like she enjoys being tortured. There is no sole purpose of why she looks the way she does. Yes, I know why she’s being tortured, but why is she enjoying it?
They don’t derail the overall experience of the game; they do rob the horror factor. Despite these being tasteless, they aren’t the images that Sony decides to censor. They needlessly censor a different image from the DLC.
When Death Mark was localized for America, the DLC, Red Riding Hood, had to face censorship. Sony deemed a certain image to mature for a mature game! What is the horrendous image that Sony feels like they have to protect adults from? A woman’s open mouth. Yep, that is correct. Sony censored a woman’s mouth, but not women helplessly exposed or gruesome images.
It’s unneeded censorship that treats its audience like children. The game still very vividly describes what happens, so instead of seeing it, I had an image perfectly painted in my mind. If this is a deal breaker for you, you can get the Steam version. It’s completely uncensored.
The last aspect that irks me is one of the designs of the spirit. In chapter three, you face a deceased bride. The build was amazing; you are trapped in a phone booth and she has you cornered. You can clearly see her chewing on two eyeballs. Her design is nightmare fuel. Until she takes off her wedding drape to reveal she’s from a Looney Tunes Halloween Special.
Why is her head in the shape of a balloon? Why do her eyes look cartoonishly huge? It’s hilarious to view and removes any tension. Here’s how to fix it: Head needs to shaped correctly, have her eyes humanly sized while closed with blood tears coming down. This design fits more into her tragic story. How about they patch this design in, instead of, patching out a woman’s mouth in the DLC.
Death Mark is a solid horror game that has stuck with me. Despite the game’s shortcomings, the overall game is very well thought out. The characters and the story is memorable. The art style is phenomenal. The replayability is staggeringly high. I got the game for $20 at my local game store. It gave me a great impression that I hope there will be a second installment.