Death Mark's lurid aesthetic creates a spine-chilling atmosphere let down by gameplay that falls short of packing the scary punch that it deserves.
Death Mark is an interactive visual novel packed to the gills with subtle scares and slippery characters. However, those who fancy themselves connoisseurs of the Resident Evil school of horror are going to likely want to look somewhere other than Aksys Games’ latest for a less sedate experience.
This title benefits from a rather sinister name, which bumps it a little further up on the scary scale than other visual novel offerings which may lean more towards the camp than the chilling. The basic premise of Death Mark pulls from a number of the genre’s well-trodden cliches: memory loss, supernatural shenanigans, and creepy children. You play as the male protagonist, bespectacled and bearded to typical shounen standards, and your job is to figure out why you’ve been branded with the eponymous death mark on your arm. This mark is usually the precursor to a violent death, so getting rid of it is in no uncertain terms your top priority.
A creepy doll in a haunted mansion supposedly has all the answers that you need, but it’s soon clear that those answers are less of a means to end your problem as they are an ever-rotating door of folklore horrors that you need to vanquish before you can even think about curing yourself. On top of that, you get to play babysitter to some side characters who have also been touched by the death mark, including but not limited to some overenthusiastic schoolchildren.
The gameplay loop in Death Mark mimics that of a police procedural more than your standard horror fare where you free-roam in narrow corridors listening for the breathing of NPCs. You get to move from room to room of whatever set piece you’re currently in: an abandoned elementary school and a haunted forest are just some of the backdrops that you’ll encounter on your travels.
For the intrepid explorer, glowing indicators indicate particular areas of interest that you can investigate further, pick up, or change the state of by touching. Your trusty flashlight will illuminate darkened areas, but beware a second or third pass of your cursor - spooky specters often appear where they weren’t before, just to keep you on your toes. You’ll nab tidbits of information and items that pertain to the entity haunting the location that you’re in, and you’ll get to use these as weapons in your arsenal when you face them down in a final boss battle at the end of each narrative chapter.
The chapters themselves are individual homages to the Japanese folklore horrors who inhabit the cursed location you’re visiting. You’ll catch glimpses of them here and there as you traipse around picking up clues, perhaps in the form of an errant flash of a limb or five, or an ominous spectral face. Confronting them in the above-mentioned boss battle situation takes the form of a timed decision-making game where you have to use the knowledge that you’ve garnered about the horror to essentially defeat it in a dialogue sequence. You have a gauge of energy that’s replenished through certain activities in the overworld, and a wrong answer knocks that gauge down, with an empty gauge meaning a Game Over.
Luckily for those who have trouble thinking on the fly, Death Mark is actually pretty forgiving, which lessens the impact of these eldritch horrors a little despite the impeccable art that accompanies their portrayal. The art style of the game is flawlessly macabre, with an incredible eye for detail being paid to individual flower petals sprouting from the lithe bodies of victims, to smears of blood dotting an otherwise pristine landscape being the only clue that something truly tragic has occurred. The juxtaposition of truly horrible imagery with the fact that some of these killer entities are depicted as children is chillingly effective.
In fact, that profound sense of wrongness you get when confronted with a twisted visage in those timed dialogue sessions where you're unable to look away on pain of a Game Over serves the title extremely well. There's also something a little fetishistic about the way that victims who are women are depicted as well, occasionally unnecessary lack of clothing, which only adds to the off-kilter tone being developed over the course of the game.
It's just a shame that once you've gotten over the few times you encounter a disembodied supernatural villain lurking around a dark corner, or seen the detailed sprawl of a victim in all their necrotic glory, there isn't all that much to actually be scared by. The boss battles in Death Mark are undoubtedly meant to be moments of high tension but on the off-chance that you've fallen for the many red herrings thrown at you during the investigation process and bungled how to exorcise the evil entity, it really isn't the be and all end all.
Failing a battle merely kicks you back to just before you make the fatal mistake. In that way, there's no real threat to your progress, nor will you feel a constant threat to the protagonist after you survive a couple of brushes with in-game death. It's like micro-dosing on horror: a scream from a jump-scare here, a truly grotesque scene of the crime there, and a resolution that feels more like a come down than a climax.
It feels like Aksys Games were more concerned with building the perfect aesthetic vehicle to tell a horror story, but filling it with the relevant weighty components was a little harder than it seemed. This may speak to the game's visual novel leanings; we're used to those being more sedate fare, and for the focus to be on expository information dumps and layers of lore, all of which Death Mark delivers with aplomb.
The thrills and chills feel more like a garnish on an otherwise visual novel-flavored main course, and their function seems to be more complimentary than complementary. You'll find yourself caring about some of the tragic stories that turned these entities into who they are, perhaps caring even more so about them then some of the party members that you get lumped with who fulfill basic anime stereotypes at their core.
Death Mark is a beautifully rendered visual novel that flirts with the idea of throwing you in harm's way before revealing that its bark is worse than its bite. It's not a mechanical flaw that lets the title down; exploring and interacting with the environment is intuitive, solving puzzles is mostly satisfying, and playing supernatural detective bingo is rewarding in its own right. However, all the setup that the game goes through – from its layered storytelling, tortured aesthetic, and fleshed-out villains – results ultimately in pay-offs where these realized threats go out with a whimper rather than a bang. It's a beautiful ride to be on, but the crux of a narrative horror game being more about taking the scenic route than the screaming route is the fundamental issue that players will struggle with here.
Death Mark is out now on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4. Screen Rant was provided with a PC code for the purposes of this review.