It is well past 4AM when we sneak back into the derelict ruins of H Elementary School. Our cursed marks sear our flesh, a constant reminder that death awaits us at dawn, unless we’re able to exorcise the source of this malediction. The strongest lead we have is the sighting of Hanahiko, the vengeful spirit of a murdered child said to appear in the mirror in the school’s eastern stairwell.
One of our number, a teenage occult fanatic named Moe Watanabe, went missing following our first encounter with Hanahiko. As my partner and I scour the grounds for her, we notice something feels amiss…as if someone, or something, is watching us. I slowly turn my head towards the ceiling, the source of my apprehension.
And that’s when we see it: Moe, spilling out of her underwear, tied up in undulating vines like a Nobuyoshi Araki photoshoot.
Ah geez, and we were off to such a good start.
Death Mark is the latest game from Experience Inc. Primarily known for their Wizardry-esque dungeon crawls, Death Mark is the studio’s first stab at an out-and-out horror adventure title, as well as the debut entry of their loose Spirit Horror series. And it’s mostly a success!
Set during the mid ’00s, Death Mark concerns an urban legend about a sinister cursed bruise said to be showing up on individuals living in H City. The source of the mark and how to escape it differs from tale to tale, while the purported outcome stays consistent: the mark deteriorates its recipient’s mind, melting their memories away before they succumb to a quick death. Our protagonist passes two schoolgirls talking about the legend and dismisses it as adolescent nonsense, until to his horror, he realises he can’t remember his own name or anything about himself. He soon finds himself drawn to the deserted yet immaculate Kujou Manor where, under the auspices of a sentient doll named Mary, he’s advised to begin investigating H City’s numerous haunted locales in an effort to identify and exorcise the entity that cursed him. And thus, the search begins.
You’re not alone, either: each chapter sees two or three urban legend enthusiasts-turned-Mark Bearers turn up at Kujou Manor seeking help. The protagonist is happy to oblige, though Mary warns that too many Mark Bearers in a single haunted location may draw negative energy, so you’re only able to partner with one individual at a time. Once you exorcise the source of a character’s mark, they have to leave Kujou Manor and return to their daily life to ensure their safety. This allows for a hefty rotating cast, though a few allies stick around to bridge chapters.
Partners (as well as the protagonist) have a set of numerical stats, yet these never demonstrably come in to play. There are sequences in which a particular character is required to proceed, though these are telegraphed and communicated through the story’s events as opposed to a die roll. If you’re not taking a specialist — a multilinguist to read a foreign text, for example — it’s really down to a matter of preference. Having a choice is nice, but this has the knock-on effect of some characters feeling underutilized, or sometimes even like red herrings.
Each chapter takes place over the course of a night as the player seeks to locate the Monster of the Week at its reported Haunt, Death Mark’s term for its myriad haunted locations. Haunts consist of a number of beautifully illustrated backgrounds separated by a node map traversed with the D-pad. You interact with each scene by shining a flashlight beam in search of clues, abnormalities, or items to help defeat your otherworldly adversary. Death Mark makes smart use of this tense approach to investigation, and every so often your flashlight is sure to uncover a glowing face beneath a staircase or a hand clawing at a window accompanied with chilling sound effects.
The sound design as a whole is killer, with gusts of wind, the faint sound of scrabbling above you, or liquid hitting stone causing the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up. The music is pretty good too; I was especially fond of an ambient track that incorporated gurgling with distorted Westminster Chimes. But on the whole, I felt the atmosphere would be more oppressive and effective if music was used more sparingly to allow silence to punctuate the terror.
Like any good horror story, eventually your investigation finds you face-to-face with something awful, which starts a Live or Die sequence. Live or Die is essentially a multiple choice scenario where you must make a quick decision to survive a harrowing encounter. A time limit, governed by “Soul Power,” adds to the urgency: make the wrong decision and you either die outright or lose Soul Power — naturally, you die if this reaches zero. Some of these sections felt a little too trial-and-error for my liking, but Death Mark mercifully allows you to immediately restart just before a Live or Die section if you succumb to darkness. You’re always given enough Soul Power to complete a section, while more can be accrued by finding talismans hidden throughout the game.
However, a particular Live or Die segment points out a glaring localization error that will likely vex most players. A middle chapter requires you to make contact with a ghost. You’re warned that she hates eyes, so you’re advised to avoid mentioning eyes or words that sound like “eye.” The first thing the ghost asks is how you saw it. You can say with your own eyes, with eyeglasses, or with a telescope. The solution there is simple enough, but then it asks what color you saw. Your answers are red, pink, or green. Then it asks you what you desire: dreams, love, or romance. These latter two questions rely on Japanese wordplay which is completely lost in translation. As mentioned above, the penalty for an incorrect answer is lenient, but if there was ever a case against literal translation, this is it. Fortunately, aside from this, Elizabeth Bushouse’s localized script is very good. The protagonist’s narration effectively builds dread, and the vivid personalities of Death Mark’s large supporting cast are communicated charmingly.
Once you’ve collected enough clues and objects, the boom of a grandfather clock signals the approach of dawn, and with it, the final showdown with a chapter’s spirit. These encounters somewhat resemble a turn-based RPG battle, where you and your partner have to use your items to fend off a spirit’s assault until it comes close enough to exorcise. Proper item choice is the difference between life and death, though you can refer to your journal at any time to decipher your clues. However, how you decipher these clues is up to you: each encounter has a good and “normal” (re: bad) ending depending on whether you choose to free a spirit from its grudge or attempt to obliterate it entirely. The spirits themselves look absolutely great, each sporting its own creative design. I don’t want to share too much so as not to spoil anything, but seeing a far-too-tall bride, veil covering its oddly elongated head, slowly shamble towards you is so, so good.
The biggest stumbling block found in Death Mark is its frequent erotic CG, an inclusion I mentioned at the outset of this review. No less than once — sometimes twice — per chapter, our heroes stumble onto a passionately detailed image of an undressed woman who is either bound and gagged, in the throes of torture, or seductively posed in death. These scenes are almost always non sequiturs; all but one fail to fit in with the perpetrating antagonist’s motivations or the overarching story, and the one case that arguably fits feels needlessly exploitative. In her piece on the fashion industry’s burgeoning obsession with dead women, Kira Cochrane writes that such fetishisation is the “ultimate end point of a spectrum in which women’s passivity and silence is sexualised, stylised, and highly saleable.” We see this in practice in many forms of pop culture — especially horror, a genre known for inherent, long-standing issues with misogyny and gender disparity — but Cochrane’s observation of dead women as aesthetic is particularly obvious in Death Mark: when a sequence involving a BDSM damsel or sexy corpse is resolved, it is never commented on, and the victims who are alive and able to be rescued bear no lasting scars. This emphasises that Death Mark’s eroticism is distinctly separate from the rest of its narrative — more phantasmal and less corporeal than its ghostly antagonists, existing solely for the male gaze and the titillation of the player. These moments were jarring to say the least, and only served to regularly take me out of the experience.
Experience Inc. are on to something exciting with Death Mark; it’s a quiet, slow-burning horror the likes of which we rarely see in favor of unrelenting, high octane scarefests. Playing it alone in the dark with headphones on is incredibly affecting, and yet its misguided swerves into fetish territory make me hesitant to casually recommend it. A follow-up to Death Mark that focuses on the scares without getting bogged down with tacked-on titillation could be really special. Hopefully spiritual sequel NG, which recently released in Japan, will be just that.