Aksys Games are one of the most underrated game publishers in my opinion. They have helped localise and bring quite a few unique and unusual Japanese games to western audiences and they published my GOTY last year, Tokyo Xanadu eX+ (which is now available to download on PSNow in the EU).
This generation I’ve grown fond of quirky Japanese games, visual novels and over-the-top mind-fuck games with gems such as Punch Line, School Girls/Zombie Hunters, >observer_, and Gal*Gun 2 coming to mind. Now, what if all these aspects were brought together into one truly horrific, disturbing, fucked up, and sexually suggestive game? I believe you would have Death Mark…
Developed by Experience Inc and published by Askys Games, this Halloween why not treat yourself to one of the craziest and most disturbing visual novels you’ll play this year! Don’t believe me? Allow me to go into more detail…
Death Mark is a story about death, spirits, monsters, and revenge. Kids around Tokyo’s H City have been spreading a rumour, those who have a cursed mark upon their person (in the shape of a dogs bite) have been marked for death by an evil spirit. As such, these people are merely walking dead men/women as they are destined to be taken by the spirit who placed the mark upon them within a matter of days. The symptoms? As you approach your final breaths, you begin to lose your memory, act strange and become compliant with death and what the spirits ask of you. The memory loss begins early but gets more advanced the closer to death you are.
In comes our nameless protagonist, who we shall call Fred (as that’s the name I gave him). You’ve heard about this rumour and have somehow appeared outside of an old mansion with no knowledge of being there other than you know you have to speak to the owner. You realise that you have the mark on your arm, could this be why you have seemingly lost your memory? Are you close to death? After ‘finding’ the house owner and becoming unaware of what’s real or not anymore, you encounter a large doll in the hallway. However, this doll is magical and can speak freely – which she does whilst explaining what the Death Mark is and how the curse works.
Moments later, there is knocking at the door – more people appear which have been cursed by a spirit. You’re told you need to find the source of the curse (the spirit who gave them the mark) and either eliminate them or bring them peace so that they can move on and thus breaking the curse. However, which spirit was the one who cursed you? There’s only one way to find out – help out all those in need until you eventually discover who your target is and send them back to wherever it is they came from…
Looks like a VN, plays like an Adventure:
Death Mark is bloody fantastic! I was given the game for review and within three days I had received the platinum. It’s not a short game, I clocked in at over 35 hours in order to get the platinum, but I was hooked by the whole story, atmosphere and sheer craziness of it. The game itself is like a visual novel crossed with an adventure game. You move around, from scene to scene, with the D-Pad or Right Stick whilst using your on-screen map as a visual indication of where you’re going. Once you’re on a screen, you can use the Left Stick to wave around your flashlight and discover interaction points such as objects to look at or doors to open. As this is a spooky game, you’ll occasionally also see ghosts and creatures as you wave around your torch, especially in the forest.
You can examine anything which you spot in the world with an interaction marker, with some items allowing you to go a step further and use an item on them in order to obtain things, unlock them, or just use an item to solve a puzzle. Each of the chapters will see you travelling between the mansion (your home-base) and another location which is relevant to the case/chapter you’re on. You’ll see yourself venture to a few varied locations throughout your gameplay such as the forest, a school, a bunker and even a seedy hotel. Each one has it’s own eerie ambient sounds, creepy visuals, demonic presences, and horrific history. The venues themselves aren’t massive but they hold a lot of content in their small areas, as well as a lot of character and spooky charm.
Throughout Death Mark, you’ll meet up with a number of people who also bear the mark of a spirit on their person. Just like the wise old man said in Zelda, it’s dangerous to go alone – as such, you can take one person with you as you explore each of the venues for clues and information on who and where the spirit is. This is where the puzzle elements of Death Mark comes in as you sometimes have to go back and forth to the mansion in order to swap out for different characters to accompany you. For example, you may need a lighter person to lift up and grab something that’s too high up for you, or you may need someone who can read the language of foreign documents. The game never hints who you need or what you should do, it leaves all of that to you as there are multiple ways to do various things.
A core mechanic of Death Mark is death itself. You will die a lot as you play the game. You find ‘Soul Power’ in the form of talismans scattered around which acts as your life, kinda. Every now and again you’ll be given a question either from the spirit or other creatures within the chapter, and as soon as the answers appear, your Soul Power starts to diminish. If you get a question wrong then you either lose 500 Soul Points or you die. If you get it right, nothing happens. Once you die – as you will die – you can either load a save game or answer the questions again. So fear of death isn’t that bad as you’re never really losing anything for guessing as you can always try again. However, some answers you give to questions will actually change the chapters outcome (for better or worse) or even allow you to find new items or paths within the location you’re at.
One of the big selling points for Death Mark is the fact that every story (six in total) has two possible endings along with trophies for each. There’s a good and bad ending to each chapter based upon the final encounter you have with the spirit. Speaking of which, the final encounters remind me a little of Undertale as you have both of your characters using various weapons or items you picked up against the evil spirit in order to draw them near. Once they’re close enough, you need to use a certain combination of items to either release or kill them. Which items do you have to use? Again, the game is great as it doesn’t tell you. However, as you’re exploring, you’ll find books and notes which practically tell you what the spirit wants and how to free them, you just have to read between the lines.
Each good and bad ending has its own trophy – so you need to see both endings – yet the normal end credits roll if you have had at least one bad ending and the good one if you got all the good endings. The game does have manual saves though, so you can pretty much manipulate it if you don’t want to play the whole game multiple times. On top of that, if you get all the good endings, you’ll unlock the sixth chapter – this was a bonus chapter added for the PS4 version in Japan and sold as a download for Japanese PS Vita owners. Let’s take a look at the chapters…
Chapters and spirits:
Boy, are these chapters fucked up! I’ll put a spoiler tag around the below as I’ll talk briefly about the spirits and what they look like/are designed around. So if you don’t want to read that – Don’t click the below…
When I went into Death Mark, I thought it would be a simple ghost story, but no. The developers have gone all in on creating some of the sickest and disturbing beings I’ve seen in a while. First up we have a young boy who likes to wear makeup and wear a dress. However, he was sexually abused in the school by the headmaster after everyone went home in a secret room which is also where he died at the hands of his abuser.
Next, we have a massively fat hillbilly who failed to fully kill himself when he was part of a suicide cult. As such, he now roams the forest, which is a place where people kill themselves a lot, and he drills holes into people whilst they are still alive and then puts up their bodies as beehives.
Finally, as I’m not going to tell you all of them, you’ll come across a teacher who decided to take Frankenstein’s monster to the next level and basically became a walking monstrosity. She has snakes for arms – just like Xavier: Renegade Angel and a horrific Pigs head instead of her own.
For those who didn’t peek, you’re in for some nice surprises as you play the game. Each of the spirits have been really well designed and made to look freaky, horrific, terrifying, and sadistic! It’s awesome!
On a side note to this, the bonus chapter which you unlock if you get all the good endings isn’t part of the main story. It involves everyone (which is why you need the good endings) and sees you all working together to solve one final case. As it doesn’t appear this chapter is in the PS Vita version (based on the trophies) I just wanted to say that you’re not missing much – it’s a 3-4 hours bonus chapter (so quite long) but it doesn’t add anything to the overall story as that’s nicely cleaned up within the base game.
Censorship (due to the ESRB):
This had to be brought up as I saw someone mention it on a forum so I have to be honest about it. The western release of Death Mark has been censored in certain areas over the Japanese version. As I was playing the bonus chapter I got to a point where I found a doctors tool and the game proceeded to tell me what it was used for. Our character then started to imagine a woman screaming as the device was used to hold open her mouth whilst spiders are forced down her throat. The western version has a blacked out image, as above, with the text and screaming. The Japanese version (which I saw on YouTube when I needed help with a puzzle in that stage) shows the girl, the spider, the emotion and the sounds.
This made me think – throughout the game there were times the game was explaining things but not showing me them. Putting two and two together makes me think that certain scenes may have been ‘visually’ removed from the game, even if the sounds and text remained. **This is the only image that was altered** It doesn’t impact the game as I wouldn’t have known had I not seen the Japanese guy playing it. I wouldn’t hold this against the game though as there are still some rather horrific and visually disturbing scenes in other areas with some being even more crazier than this spider eating part, so I’m not sure why this was removed. I would say maybe it’s a sexual thing with the screaming and holding her mouth open, but there are images of an almost naked woman wrapped in vines and snakes in previous chapters. **Update from Aksys: The image was a red flag for the ESRB rating, so they chose to remove the image but keep all sounds and narrative in-tact. This allowed Death Mark to receive a pass. As the NA and EU code is the same, the change appears in all formats.**
Here is the official statement I received today (1st November 2018):
Aksys Games was founded on the mission to publish unique, high quality content that might otherwise not be available to Western audiences. We have a long tradition of faithfully localizing games from around the world intact, without removal or alteration of the contents.
In the case of Death Mark, the image in question was flagged as being possibly disturbing and/or offensive. Due to that, we respected and complied with the request we received and made the decision to modify the individual image accordingly for the releases in North America and Europe. We hope our explanation is understandable and that everyone will continue to enjoy the game.
But, is the upcoming PC version, on the 4th April 2019, also censored? Find out HERE.
On a side note, another difference between the Japanese and western version is the speech. Well, both regions don’t have any voice acting other than the occasional grunt or scream but the Japanese version had a DLC released which contains four episodes from a voice drama (based on google translate). I’m not 100% sure on what this is but it isn’t included in this version.
All the various locations and characters in Death Mark look fantastic. On the PS4 Pro, the Super Sampling message pops up, so we’re getting an image above 1080p when running it on that console yet it looks amazing on the standard PS4 as well. The eerie atmosphere really sends the willies up you as you move around the beautifully hand-drawn environments which are populated with lost souls.
This combined with the sounds of children laughing, women screaming, pipes creaking, and dogs growling really immerses you in the world and creates a really strong feeling of dread and uneasiness – even if it’s just a visual novel adventure game.
In terms of speed, everything loads super fast, there is no framerate or performance issues, I had no crashes, and there are no blocks on photos or video sharing.
On a side note, something I found quite interesting. In Japan, it’s been out on the Nintendo Switch, PS Vita and PlayStation 4 for a while now yet it came out on the Xbox One last week. The Xbox One version has the bonus chapter (like the PS4 version) and the Japan-only DLC I mentioned above already within the game. However, Aksys Games have only translated and released the Nintendo Switch, PS Vita and PlayStation 4 versions – the Xbox one appears to be Japanese only. I know that’s not really relevant but I thought it was quite interesting – maybe the Xbox will get it further down the line?
Death Mark is up there as one of the best Visual Novels I’ve played this generation, with the likes of 428: Shibuya Scramble and Punch Line. I’m not a massive horror fan, although I did finish >observer_ the other day and review it, yet I found Death Mark rather enjoyable and fascinating. I’m not sure if it was the highly interesting story which had me wanting to find out what comes next, the horrific and fucked-up imagery of the spirits, the beautifully hand-drawn assets, or the rather inventive ways of killing people, which had me invested the most? I think it was a combination of all aspects, but overall I would say the story and the imagery were amazing.
I’ve talked to a few people about this game, telling them about the various spirits and their motivations, as well as how they looked and how it made me feel. We all came to the same conclusion – why isn’t this a film, anime or mini-series? A story about cursed people having to face their fears and overcome the challenges placed before them by the spirit who cursed them in order to either free or destroy their presence on this earth – that would make an awesome show.
Either way though – Death Mark is out on Halloween and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you don’t usually go for visual novels yet you like horror games, sure this is slow paced with a lot of reading and around 35 hours of gameplay, it’s worth it. I’m going to pick this up on the PS Vita shortly and play through it again as I want to see what it’s like on the handheld as well as the big screen. Also, the PS Vita version appears to have fewer trophies and no mention of the bonus sixth chapter.
I’ve emailed my contact for clarification on if and when the DLC will hit the PS Vita version, but as of writing this review, both have a platinum but the PS4 version has the extra chapter. I’ve just been informed that the PSVita version is going to be a lower price than the Switch and the PS4 version due to Aksys Games not being able to fit the DLC on the cartridge. If you buy the DLC content (which is a decent length), then it makes the price more in line with the Switch and PS4 versions that have it included by default.
Also, Experience Inc. has a new game out in Japan, NG, I really hope that also gets picked up by Aksys Games and brought to the west!
If you don’t buy Death Mark then expect to wake up tomorrow with no memory and a scar on your arm. This visual novel is among the best I’ve played this generation with its dark themes, horrific imagery, disturbing sound effects and overall feeling of uneasiness. The whole experience, from start to end, will last you around 20-25 hours if you read all the dialogue options and play it blind from beginning to end. Add about 3-4 hours on top of that if you unlock the bonus chapter and even more if you have to replay the game to unlock the other ending to each chapter. Death Mark is an adventure visual novel so expect puzzles, riddles, exploration and traps.
Horror, visual novel, creepy games, crazy Japanese games, and thriller fans will find something they like about Death Mark. Can you save everyone or will Mrs. Piggy whip out her snake and kill you all?
- Perfect blend of horror, suspense, creepiness, and adventure
- Really interesting story with a perfectly translated narrative
- Each of the spirits are unique and have multiple ways to take them down
- Free bonus chapter (with the PS4 version)
- Visually stunning at times with amazing artwork
- No voice acting (some people may find that to be a negative)
- No chapter select upon completion (again, some people may have issues with this)