Back in October 2018, I played and reviewed one of the best adventure visual novels I’d played this entire generation, Death Mark. I ended my review with a wish, a request that Experience Inc. and Aksys Games worked together once more and brought the next game in the series, Spirit Hunter: NG, to the west. Much to my excitement, the localisation was announced earlier this year and I was able to get my hands on it early in order to see if it lived up to the brilliance of its predecessor.
Just like Death Mark, once I started up Spirit Hunter: NG on my PS4, I was hooked. I played the game almost non-stop until I’d engaged in every conversation possible, clicked on every hotspot, both watched as I saved and killed off all of my colleagues, and seen all three endings. Needless to say, I also acquired the platinum (I believe I was the first to do so) and even played through it once more – just for the fun of it.
So, with Halloween around the corner and ’tis the season to be spooky, do I recommend you pick up this game? I imagine you already know the answer, but let’s find out anyway…
Regardless of what you may have heard beforehand, Spirit Hunter: NG isn’t a direct sequel to Death Mark. Sure, there are references to an urban legend about a doll who resides within a mansion, helping strangers deal with a mysterious mark upon their person so that they may live to see another day, but this is a new story within the same world. However, although it sounds a little contradictory, the story within Spirit Hunter: NG isn’t that different to the one which played out last time, albeit with a new set of characters, a new ‘evil’, more lives at risk, and a new ‘mark’ to fight against.
Without getting into specifics (as you’ll be buying the game shortly so I don’t want to ruin it for you), you take the role of a customisable male protagonist – you can not only set the name but also pick from four very similar facial designs. You live at home, alone, as your parents are no longer of this world – your mother never really cared and you never knew your father. As such, upon your mother’s death, your aunt Natsumi became your legal guardian and her young daughter, Ami, positively looks up to you as her older brother. Things are going ‘okay’ until Ami asks to pay her respects to her friend who passed away a year ago.
What happens next are a series of strange events which leads to the disappearance of a loved one, teaming up with new, and old friends as you investigate various spirits and ghostly encounters around the town, making decisions which will literally result in life or death situations, and ultimately trying to save those you love from the evil curse of Kubitarou, a doll-like demon who demands that you play her game; or else!
If you’ve played Death Mark, Spirit Hunter: NG is basically the same in terms of its gameplay. There are four core gameplay elements that you’ll utilise throughout every chapter within the game, Visual Novel, Exploration, Puzzles, and Boss Battles (for want of a better term). Let’s take a look at each and see how/if they differ from the previous game in the series.
As you’d expect, there’s a lot of talking within this game. Well, I say talking… there’s a lot of reading – the vast majority of the game is silent, in terms of the vocals. There’s the odd line thrown in here and there, in Japanese, as well as some rather creepy singing from one of the spirits and some pleasant singing from a few of the protagonists. However, the game itself relies on brilliant music and sound effects over any form of continuous vocal narrative (in any language). As with any Visual Novel, you have a decent selection of options such as skip, auto-read, re-read, hide the text box and an aesthetically pleasing design that wouldn’t be out of place in Persona 5.
Whilst we’re on the subject of the narrative itself, I personally enjoyed the story of Spirit Hunter: NG a little bit more than Death Mark. Word of warning though, NG is a slow starter, I think it took about six hours of regular read and play before I actually encountered the first spirit fight. So, if you feel the beginning part drags on a little, persevere with it as once the main events begin to take place, the game gets much more interesting and the horror comes in thick and fast. Also, the ‘mark of death’ this time around is rather disturbing and unsettling – just thinking about it creeps me out!
As with any game within the Visual Novel Genre, I feel I have to say that I highly recommend that you actually read the story and immerse yourself within its horrific events and disturbing situations. Sure, you can skip the entire narrative and have the game over within around fifteen hours (as the platinum requires at least two and a half playthroughs, but you’d be missing out on an amazing narrative. Personally, my first playthrough, which was blind as I have had it a few weeks with no guides out there, took me around 40 hours. My second run, to save people instead of watching them die, took around 6-7 hours, and another 3-4 in order to get the third and final ending.
On a side note, throughout the game, you’re given a chance to pick your response to the people talking to you. This is shown as to how ‘judging you are’ to a question or comment. So, Ami may ask if you’re happy she is spending time with you and you can pick from five expressions. These range from angry to high-as-a-kite happy. These options won’t alter the story but it does give you unique follow up responses based on what you pick. This means that as you do your multiple playthroughs, you can change the personality (slightly) of your protagonist.
If you’ve played Death Mark then you’ll be well aware of the cheap jump scares the developers put within the exploration segments. As you’re walking around the various locations, shining your torch on things, you’ll occasionally see a face off to the side of the screen or a ghost will appear as you shine a light over an object. Well, Spirit Hunter: NG cranks that up to the max and returns with jumps which literally had me jumping in fright and swearing repeatedly at the TV. Thankfully, there’s a toggle when you start the game which adjusts how many of these you want. Just like in It: Chapter 2, you have three options; Off, Default and Scary mode (Not scary at all, Scary and, Very scary).
However, jump scares that are part of the main narrative, such as the main spirit coming by your house to say “hi”, are still present in their full glory, regardless of the option you pick. I tried all three modes and the number of pesky ghosts in the exploration segments does alter by quite a bit – I highly recommend Scary mode with the lights off and whilst wearing headphones!
Exploration itself is rather restrictive as you can only move around a set map when the game wants you too. This makes the game itself very linear and restrictive within its approach. I would even go as far as saying I actually enjoyed the maps within Death Mark more as they were bigger, had a bit more variety, and felt a little more relaxed on pushing you in a certain direction. Don’t get me wrong though, the locations within Spirit Hunter: NG all look very spooky and disturbing in the dark (as you only seem to leave the house at night). However, I would have loved a bit more freedom or chances to screw up due to my inability to think about what was going on.
The main new addition to the gameplay over Death Mark is the introduction of ‘Bloodmetry’. Basically, if you see some blood on the floor, an item, or a body, when you touch it, our protagonist can see events that happened previously that led up to the blood being placed there. If you’ve ever seen The Dead Zone, it’s like that, but it only happens with blood and not via touching anything.
One hint I will give for everyone picking up the game, click on everything and explore everywhere. Once again, Spirit Hunter: NG actually lets you get to the ‘boss battles’ without having picked up everything within the location you’re exploring. This means you may not be able to perform a certain action to either kill or save the spirit, or you may not have the correct partner with you in order to proceed.
Ohhh, I do love a game with unique and interesting puzzles in it and Spirit Hunter: NG did not disappoint! Although not technically a standard ‘puzzle game’, almost every interaction, choice, item you pick up, and riddle you solve is a puzzle. From what I can recall of Death Mark, that game was mostly exploration and then utilising the correct items and dialogue choices in order to take care of the spirits within each location, with the odd puzzle here and there. This game has you looking through your case notes and spirit info cards in order to work out what items to use and what to say, exploring the environment for clues and hints on how to bypass things like computer passwords, and solving riddles in order to find a playing card.
The playing cards are a rather interesting addition to the game. As you progress through the chapters, a mysterious person, named D-Man, will text you a riddle about the area you’re currently in. You can ignore him or go in search of the item he’s talking about. If you find it, you’ll receive a playing card printed with a short tale about other encounters and even some references to Death Mark events. I’d highly recommend you drop everything and go in search of these as soon as he messages you as the opportunity will be lost if you take too long.
Another puzzle mechanic returns from the previous game, picking the right companion. Each location allows you to swap out the character you’re with when you return to the entrance. Not only does this give you new narrative and dialogue based upon who you have, but it also allows the person to use their specific skills to help you out as well as be your saviour in times of need. For example, in the park, you have the choice of your Yakuza friend and a gothic-dressing girl who is obsessed with the occult. The guy can pick locks and break you into places yet he won’t go anywhere spooky, yet the girl is practically begging you to take her with you!
My only complaint with the puzzles in Spirit Hunter: NG is that the character swap wasn’t as well implemented as it was in Death Mark. Sure, it has the same process and reasoning behind it, but the companions you have aren’t set in stone. You may get someone killed off in chapter one or two, so they can’t come with you anymore. However, if you save them, they may pop back up later on, yet there’s no need for their skills as they wouldn’t be there if you’d followed another path. So, only a few of the chapters utilise this fully.
After playing Death Mark, with all of its horrific and down-right ugly spirits, I didn’t think Spirit Hunter: NG could actually step up and deliver a more disturbing experience – I was wrong. The developers have once again taken us on a journey full of twisted, deranged, and unsettling looking freaky spirits for us to either save or kill. Each spirit is the roaming apparition of a person who had suffered on Earth just before their death – either recently or many years ago. As such, they are out to not only recreate their death upon their murderers, but they are also out to terrify and perform actions that they feel is needed in order to be fulfilled and move on.
So, how do you deliver peace to these monstrosities? At the end of each investigation segment, you’ll meet up, face-to-face, with the spirit as you engage in a form of exorcism. Either through your dialogue choices or dependant on what item you use on what part of the scene, you’ll either free the spirit from their pain and release them, or you’ll kill them once more whilst they are unsatisfied and in terrible agony. If you choose or manage to do the latter – as I did on my first playthrough – the evil Kubitarou offers the spirit “an eye for an eye”. As such, should the spirit not be fulfilled upon their departure, one of your companions will meet a gruesome end within the next few hours. Don’t forget – once someone’s dead, they remain dead – there are no second chances.
What I absolutely love about Spirit Hunter: NG is how much it fucks with you. you’ll never know how you impacted the spirit you banished until you’ve either moved onto the next day with all your friends still alive, or you’ve let your guard down and suddenly, they’ve been stripped naked and impaled on a spike as their blood is dripping from their body and covering the walls like paint! It’s so exciting and nerve-wracking as you prey for whichever outcome you were hoping for.
Streaming the game? Beware
Just a small announcement to make here, one which I wish I didn’t have to make. Unless the game is changed post-launch (which I doubt it will), there’s a lot of restrictions on photos, videos and streaming the game from the PS4 directly. Basically, as soon as you reach the first ‘battle’ with the spirit of the lake, the game goes into lock-down on all visual manipulation. The share button basically stops working. This means you can no longer take pictures, videos or stream directly from your PS4 – just like we saw in games like Danganronpa V3 and Persona 5.
Now, I can see why the developers have done this – to stop people sharing spoilers and showing off video and image footage from the console. However, if you have a capture card – you’re free to do whatever, just don’t be an ass and spoil things for other people! For me, this was a pain as I love taking pictures and I really wanted to capture an image of every horrific creature and death within the game – but I couldn’t. So, I had to dig out my old capture card and do it that way.
The reason I had to mention this is because the restriction wasn’t in place in Death Mark and I have no idea if the Switch version also has it imposed (as the Switch can also disable images and videos if the developer chooses to do so). So, if you’re looking to stream this to your followers and you only stream from your console – you’re out of luck. If you stream via the use of a capture card, it’ll be fine.
We all remember the controversy with Death Mark (me in particular as I was essentially the one who started it as other publications picked up on my findings). Last time, there was an image blacked out due to the ESRB finding it unacceptable in the console ports, yet it was reinstated in the PC version and wasn’t touched in the Japanese originals. Spirit Hunter: NG does NOT contain any form of censorship, as informed by my contact who provided the review code. I’ve personally watched through about ten hours of footage, maybe more as I was skipping through it, of Japanese gamers playing it on YouTube. From what I can see, the port is 1:1 in terms of the images. However, I don’t speak Japanese so I can’t guarantee the narrative is identical as things are often adjusted during translation in order to suit the region it’s being sold in.
However, I have no reason to believe anything has been altered as the narrative does touch on some disturbing things at times and there’s your usual chat about boobs…
My one complaint (mild-spoiler)
The endings. The ‘bad’ ending was really good and I loved certain events and people who appeared within it. However, the other two endings were quite dull in comparison. If I could ask the developer to do anything with the game, I’d ask them to rewrite the Normal and ‘Good’ ending so that I can replay the game all over again and feel the same rush of excitement that I felt whilst watching the ‘bad’ ending.
What can I say? Spirit Hunter: NG looks absolutely amazing. Every single scene perfectly fits the tone of the game, from the dark and lonely apartment to the horrific death scenes you’ll most likely come across during your playthrough. The character portraits are equally as good, although much more simplistic in their design (your companions, not the spirits). The choice of protagonist you make at the beginning of the game does follow through and alter the look of each of the portraits moving forward, but the change between all four is very minimal so that the more advanced CG images don’t have to change.
What did surprise me though was how much the simple jump scares actually got to me. I knew where and when they were going to happen but they still made me jump, even on my second and third playthrough (I turned them off on my fourth). Seriously, exploring the environment and moving your torch to a desk to open it, only to hear the crying of a child as their ghostly face appears under the desk, staring at you, is quite unsettling!
In terms of the music – I need this soundtrack. It’s as simple as that. I love game soundtracks as I have a decent collection of them, Spirit Hunter: NG was perfectly creepy, disturbing, horrifying and dark, very dark. It’s a shame there’s not a lot of voice acting, that’s my only complaint really. I knew there wouldn’t be any voices in English, but I was expecting there to be a fully-voiced Japanese cast at least. However, I didn’t mind it too much as it allowed the music and creepy sound effects to play in the background as I read the narrative to myself. Although, as I usually do, I started voicing the characters in order to distract myself from the jump I knew I was inevitably going to get any time soon…
Despite not being a direct sequel to the amazing Death Mark, more like another story in the same universe, Spirit Hunter: NG took everything which made the previous game great and further expands on it without holding back. The deaths are more gruesome, the spirits are more realistic and disturbing, the CG exposition images are more horrific, and the overall tone of the game felt a little darker and connected. Whether you pick up this game on release, just in time for Halloween, or later on in the year, you’re sure of a few surprises and jumps thanks to the brilliant narrative and well-written horror stories.
If you’ve not played Death Mark, prior knowledge isn’t required in order to fully enjoy Spirit Hunter: NG, so don’t let that put you off picking it up. However, I still highly recommend Death Mark and would urge you to play both of these amazing horror Visual Novel adventure games.
Spirit Hunter: NG£44.99
- - Brilliant set of stories which are connected perfectly
- - Visually stunning with its grotesque and disturbing imagery
- - The music is very creepy, unsettling and dark
- - Replayability with multiple personality responses and three endings
- - A perfect companion to the original Death Mark game
- - No voice acting other than a few one liners
- - The game blocks all video and images early on into the game on the PS4
- - The 'bad' ending is great, the other two didn't satisfy me as much though