There once was a story from long ago
About a child born from bamboo
Kakuya was her given name
A princess of the moon
The longer she stayed on Earth
Loneliness filled her heart
Until she decided one fateful night
It was time for her to depart
But when she returned to the moon
Her heart’s loneliness remained
So on a black postcard she wrote
Her tale’s title holds the key
In solving the riddle within
But careful! Cause once deciphered
Kakuya’s twisted game begins.
Not even playing Spirit Hunter: Death Mark several weeks prior to starting Spirit Hunter: NG prepared me for what was to come. Its darkly playful aura is every bit disconcerting and what inspired me to begin this review with a nursery rhyme-y opening. It subverts all your expectations from its predecessor and twists them to their breaking points, and in several tragic instances, it completely shatters them. For the fainthearted, consider this your warning. But for the lionhearted, consider this your invitation.
Let me first address what’s perhaps the most pressing question to most prospective players — no, you don’t need to play Death Mark first. Aside from a few small nods sprinkled throughout the story, NG is a solid standalone game that provides further insight into the series’ morbid and macabre world.
With that out of the way, let’s begin the review proper.
Spirit Hunter: NG takes place five years after the horrific events in Death Mark. The plot revolves around a mysterious cursed game simply referred to as “Kakuya’s Game.” Very little is known about its origins and content, but a few things hold true: Kakuya handpicks each player by delivering a black postcard at their doorstep and past partakers have either gone insane or died under unknown circumstances. NG’s protagonist, garbed and characterized in the typical bad boy trope, finds himself an unwilling participant when his younger sister is suddenly spirited away by Kakuya after his initial refusal to participate. To rescue his sister and escape the game’s deadly curse, he must find a way to beat Kakuya at her own game. With the stakes set, the first tale unfolds.
Differences in story aside, NG retains many of the gameplay components from its predecessor. For posterity, know that investigations are still your standard point-and-click fare that require the player to traipse through NG’s haunted locales and search for clues relevant to the current case. Keeping you on your toes are the ever-present “Crisis Choice” segments, a series of decisions you must make to escape your pesky pursuer given a set amount of time. It’s less life-threatening than it actually sounds since failing to escape simply takes you back to the beginning of this segment where you are able to make a different set of choices.
To prevent it from feeling like a complete rehash, NG introduces a new mechanic known as “Bloodmetry” into the mix. This is a special power that the protagonist possesses which enables him to receive visions after touching a bloodstain. The germaphobe in me is completely repulsed by this, but that’s beside the point. What transpires is a brief CG that depicts certain events pertaining to the person the blood belongs to. While this feels more like a garnish on an already interactive gameplay mixture, it works as a spicy seasoning to the storyline. Saying anything else teeters into spoiler territory and would be a great disservice to you, my dear reader. Can’t have that now, can I?
It’s also worth mentioning that boss battles operate a bit differently than Death Mark. Instead of determining the correct item combination to fend off your spectral attacker, you must find the proper item to use at one of several glistening spots to elude them. Hints are located in the journal and in the items’ descriptions should you ever find yourself completely stumped, but most of these are relatively straightforward.
Fans of the partner system in Death Mark will be happy to know that it makes a comeback in NG with an overwhelmingly likable cast this time around. Each one is incredibly charismatic with their individual personalities bursting through only a few lines after meeting them. NG’s all-new “Judging System” even allows you to form relationships with them by reacting to some of the things they say. Although inconsequential in regard to the story, it does make your experience all the more personal. There wasn’t a character that came even remotely close to being detestable, which is more than I can say about the series’s previous annoyances. (I’m especially looking at you, Shou). This, however, greatly raises the stakes in Kakuya’s Game. True to good ole Spirit Hunter convention, NG’s other deadly gimmick involves Kakuya intertwining each of your partner’s fates to that of the current spirit you are hunting. Purifying the spirit at the end of each boss fight releases your ally from their life-threatening spiritual shackles. Destroying them, on the other hand, causes the spirit’s curse to fall on your active partner and it’s only a matter of time until your partner’s untimely demise — graphically depicted, I might add.
The plot is where the divide between both installments truly stands out. Simply put, NG made me care. It made me care about every character I encountered during my search for spiritual salvation. It made me care about each of the spirits whose backstories were depressing to the point where I couldn’t hold back the tears when I granted them their respective wishes at the end of each tale. Lastly, it made me care so much so that I restarted several times over just to try and find the ending where everyone lives. And that heartbreaking moment when you realize that such an ending doesn’t exist and that everything was done intentionally to fill your heart with utmost despair is perhaps the most twisted part about this entire game and is exactly the kind of story I’d expect someone like Monokuma to write.
Serving as a reprieve from these emotionally charged story beats are D-mails, a series of text messages from a mysterious sender named D-Man. Receiving one sends you on a scavenger hunt of sorts and your goal is to find the D-card hidden in the object described in the message in time allotted. While optional and easily missed, I implore you to go out of your way and find as many as you can. Not only do these enable you to fully appreciate and admire NG’s bone-chilling backdrops, these D-cards also provide juicy tidbits on several of the spirits you’ve encountered thus far in both games. Some, on the other hand, are yet to be uncovered. Could these be foreshadowing what is to come in Spirit Hunter 3? Only time will tell.
If it isn’t already apparent, I’m completely invested in the series. Whereas Death Mark examines the darker side of human beings through an emotionally repressive lens, NG painfully portrays just how cruel life can be. This engrossing rumination on the nature of life and death is something we all can easily identify with, and I for one am eager to know where it will take me next. As for what the letters in NG stand for, you’ll just have to play this Necro-centric Game to find out.