Death Mark review for PS Vita, PS4, Switch

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PS4, Switch
Publisher: Aksys
Developer: Experience Inc.
Medium: Digital/Cartridge/Disc
Players: 1
Online: No

As far as I?m concerned, no game genre does horror quite like visual novels. I may just feel that way because I absorb things best when I read them, but to me, series like Corpse Party and Danganronpa are better at instilling dread and terror in players than any number of shambling, shooting zombie games. Because of the fact they can hide their disgusting gore behind words, rather than showing everything, they?ve always gotten away with things that no 3D survival horror game would even dream of.

Unsurprisingly, you can add Death Mark to that list. As you?ve probably gathered, it?s a visual novel, and…well, let?s just say it earns its M rating. It?s got death and monsters, of course, but it?s also got dismemberment, rape, violence, child abuse, suicide: name some terrible, messed-up thing, and chances are good you?ll encounter it in this game somewhere.

Whether all of it is necessary is a good question — particularly when it comes to some of its more detailed descriptions (and depictions) of female characters. Like many horror films, there?s an air of misogyny hanging around Death Mark that?s pretty hard to miss, and it becomes more apparent the more times you see scantily-clad murder victims.

That said, this game would still be creepy even if it never showed a single oddly-positioned woman dressed only in lingerie. Death Mark is built around a man investigating a mysterious mark that?s appeared on his arm that?s turned out to be a harbinger of death for anyone who has it — hence the game?s name — and it knows how to draw the tension inherent in that premise out for every little bit that it?s worth. This is obvious right from the opening moments, when you?re looking around a dark mansion trying to find some answers, and you come across a lifesize doll and a ticking clock. As you progress through the chapters, discovering objects that help you solve mysteries, you never know when your wandering flashlight is going to uncover a face hiding in a window or the outline of a child crouched under the stairs.

The game ratchets up the tension even further when you actually encounter enemies. Sometimes this takes the form of sections where you live or die depending on how you answer a ghost?s question: as the time ticks away, the game tests how closely you?ve been paying attention, and it?s sure to get your blood pumping. Elsewhere, this means — rather improbably — turn-based boss fights to close off every chapter. They don?t totally fit in with the rest of the game?s vibe, but at the same time, it?s an interesting way of making sure players don?t just zoom through the narrative.

Death Mark also makes some interesting design choices in a more literal sense. The graphics are much less uniform than what you usually see in Japanese visual novels. While many of the scenes look every bit like you?d expect, with characters sliding on and off screen as dialogue demands, elsewhere the scenes look like something out of a painting. Given how closely games of this type usually hew to a specific aesthetic, it?s a breath of fresh air to see it break out of that mold every once in awhile.

It?s actually kind of ironic to be describing anything in Death Mark as a breath of fresh air, since so much of it seems to stiflingly claustrophobic and dark. But really, that?s what it is: where most visual novels seem content, for better or for worse, to stick to a formula, this game does things a little differently, and for the most part, the game is better for it.

Aksys provided us with a Death Mark PS Vita code for review purposes.

Grade: B+