By Thomas Froehlicher 03rd Feb 2018 | 8,487 views
The survival-horror genre has become quite popular among small Japanese publishers. Death Mark is one of the many horror-themed titles that have been flourishing on PSVita and PS4 recently. These titles aim, above all, to deliver a terrifying experience to the player, and this respect Death Mark sets the bar pretty high.
As the title indicates, Death Mark revolves around a 'mark', and those who come to bear this eerie symbol soon die in often atrocious ways. The story opens with the main character wandering around the city with nothing more on him than a business card saying 'Kujô manor'. Nothing but bad news awaits him there, as he realizes that he has the mark on his arm, and learns that it will soon kill him. To make matters worse, the mark is also erasing his memory, making it difficult for him to resist his fate. But dying without putting up a fight isn't an option and so begins a desperate struggle against the mark and the dark forces behind it.
Death Mark is divided into six chapters, in which the protagonist will investigate rumors about various urban legends so as to find something connected with the mark. As in a good old point ’n click game, Death Mark’s environments are composed of still screens on which you use the Vita’s stick to look around and retrieve key items. The exploration mechanics are very standard: find a key to open a door, drive off creatures with chemicals, combine objects, and so on. So far, so normal.
Where Death Mark is a little more original is in the sudden sequences called Live or Die. In these scenarios your character is threatened with immediate death and you need to choose the best-fitting action or dialogue line among the three displayed on the screen. The correct option can be deduced from little hints given in the narrative or in the chapter files. Search and discovery, logic, and awareness are all key skills needed to make it through the game alive. There's also a limit placed on the player, which comes in the form of the protagonist’s 'soul' points. Any wrong answer costs a great deal of soul points, or can even result in sudden death. Although these sequences have a strong psychological effect, their actual value in terms of gameplay is unfortunately limited, since you can immediately restart without limitation in the case of getting a game over screen.
Over the course of the game other bearers of the mark will knock on Kujô’s door. You’ll have to carefully choose who to travel with at night from these individuals, because you can take only one partner at a time, and some characters prove necessary to progress at certain points (such as crossing a particular path or defeating a particular boss). Being a modest title, Death Mark includes very few animations and the character design isn't really close to manga standards, but they fit this title's unique atmosphere, and the secondary characters are varied enough to please everyone.
Each chapter ends with an epic encounter against the ghost that haunts the perimeter of the complex. This involves several turns in which you have to resist the monster’s attacks and then try to annihilate it when it comes close enough. You do so by choosing from all of the items you've gathered over the course of the chapter and the challenge comes in working out which ones to use or to combine. But it doesn’t stop there, because simply destroying the ghost will only net you the bad ending for the chapter. To achieve the good chapter ending, bring everyone back home alive, and witness the 'true' ending of the game as a whole, you have to save the soul of the ghost. There are therefore two levels of challenge in Death Mark, with the second one coming from analysing more deeply all of the clues in order to experience the ultimate satisfaction of seeing your favorite characters come back alive.
The best aspect of Death Mark is its astonishingly perfect atmosphere. Even more so than Yomawari Night Alone, Death Mark creates a terrifying atmosphere that lasts from the first second to the last. Environments, such as an abandoned school, a forest at night, or a deserted phone box, are so scary that you need to brace yourself before opening any door, such is Experience’s mastery in arousing suspense and handling the fear of the unknown.
The constant but uncertain menace of the ghost puts you on edge during your explorations, and the soundscape doubles the effect. Silence is widely used, of course, but Death Mark also features striking orchestral compositions at critical moments. It's also full of creepy sounds that will make you jolt - a military song coming from nowhere, howls in the forest, knocks at the door, or the ticktock of the clock that periodically tells you that you have only a few hours, or seconds, to live. Death Mark has almost no voice acting, unfortunately, but the ghosts’ icy muttering drives you to anguish.
Inevitably full of corpses, Death Mark shows gruesome deaths and plenty of misshapen creatures, which only reveal their true selves in the last turn of the final encounter. Last, but not least, Death Mark is a game that plays with your emotions at all times, making you unsure of the outcome even in the last seconds of the good ending. It benefits from an intriguing story that unfolds progressively alongside the secondary narratives (in which respect chapter three is truly excellent), maintaining a great deal of suspense until the very end. Its only drawback is being short, clocking in at 20 hours with the additional chapter, but Death Mark does compensate with a lower-than-mormal pricepoint compared to the average PSVita game in Japan.
Released on January 18th in Japan, the PS4 version of Death Mark adds a few additional features, including a brand new sixth chapter (which was also added to the PSVita version via free DLC). The home console version also includes an exclusive gallery mode, which showcases all of the artwork and Live or Die sequences. Unfortunately for those who own the handheld version, cross-save is not supported.
Gifted with an unforgettable atmosphere, Death Mark has all the qualities to be a champion of fear on both the PSVita and PS4. It is quite striking how a modest point ’n click game could reach such a high level of mastery in direction, storytelling, and sound that it could even compete with AAA survival-horror titles. But it doesn't just survive; Death Mark is one of the most intense gaming experiences of the past year, and one of the most memorable in the genre too.
Reviewed based on a Japanese version of the game. Death Mark has not been announced for Western markets.