Death Mark's developer Experience has an odd history of creating games for what could charitably be called the "wrong" formats; putting out great dungeon crawlers (Stranger of Sword City and Operation Abyss: New Tokyo Legacy, for example) for relative underdogs like the Vita and Xbox One. Death Mark is something of a shift for the company in many ways; it's their first horror game, their first adventure, and their first title to come to the Switch – but was it worth the wait?
Unlike the action-horror trappings of Resident Evil – a series that even at its most atmospheric still has you blowing a giant monster to smithereens with a rocket launcher – Death Mark is more concerned with enveloping you in a feeling of inescapable dread, a place where every shadow may hold hidden terrors and every sound could be the last thing you hear. Like the best examples of the genre, the game expertly fuses the mundane with the magical, taking dark but very human tragedies and twisting them into supernatural murder mysteries which you must solve before dawn – or die.
Death Mark's mystical horror setting presents itself as an exploratory adventure game, and much of your time will be spent wandering around a single predetermined location trying to find clues and objects that will help solve the case and quell the spirit's thirst for revenge without getting yourself killed in the process. Most of this interaction is done via your character's flashlight beam, which handily also doubles up as your cursor. Unlike the point-and-click adventures of old, your light covers quite a large area and every interactive point gives a little glint as you move over it, avoiding tedious pixel hunting and time wasted trying to work out if an interesting background detail is there as window dressing or a crucial clue. To save you from another typical piece of adventure game frustration, if one of these spots only exists to bring up some deliciously unsettling flavour text or to highlight a point of interest, then the game won't bring up the already streamlined Feel/Tool/Look interaction menu at all, saving you from that nagging feeling that maybe there's more to that broken ceiling light or rattling window frame than you first realised.
Even when played docked through a large screen, Death Mark's imagery perfectly balances the need for detailed visual clues and environments to support the mystery side of the game with the importance of that special sort of restraint that keeps something in the corner of your eye, effectively using things like floating dust particles and slight noise effects (think of the wonderful Silent Hill series) along with the unrelenting darkness to keep your nerves on edge. The game even goes as far as to ditch the artwork entirely at times, replacing it with nothing more than a black (or on some occasions, a disturbing blood-red) screen and a chilling description of the current situation printed in the text box at the bottom. In most adventure games this would be a cheap and often lazy way to convey information – there's no artwork to pay for if there's no art – but here it's used to really twist the atmospheric knife, denying you the chance to see often when you want it the most. "Do-you-like-bees?" is far more terrifying when displayed alone in bright red text (All of the text in the game is colour-coded – red is usually reserved for ghosts, whereas yellow highlights important topics or significant items), your imagination forced into overdrive, guided only by the text and the sounds you can hear.
And for once the sounds you can hear really are as integral to the experience as anything else; Death Mark's soundtrack is a wonderful thing that underlines key events very well, but the ambience thrives on the unease caused by gusts of wind, creaking ropes, and ghostly singing punctured by sudden laughter, bangs, and drilling as you explore the world around you.
Of course, no matter how high quality these haunted visuals and their accompanying sound effects are they would easily wear thin if over-used – which thankfully doesn't happen here. The brief encounters with spectres as something passes under your flashlight's beam and will never reappear again; the loud knocks on the door you just came through; the handprints on glass that fade almost too quickly for you to be sure you ever saw anything at all are all expertly handled, leaving you feeling uneasy when exploring without reducing the game to a series of cheap 'house of horror'-style spooks. You are definitely being watched, but as the game reminds you on several occasions, these ghosts are patient, these ghosts can wait. And they don't want you dead; they want to you suffer.
Being undead spirits from beyond the grave means you can't tackle them the way you would a living adversary, which is why most of your night is spent gathering information about the spectre in question, solving puzzles, and collecting items that may assist you along the way so you can exorcise the being properly. It wouldn't take much for the game to fall flat here, falling back on well-worn and always unwelcome horror game tropes – an endless supply of themed keys for an endless supply of elaborately themed doors, or tedious padlocks (rusted, of course) that can only be opened when you've found four scraps of paper scattered arbitrarily around the map. Unlike these groan-worthy examples, Death Mark's puzzles are generally very well integrated into the setting itself, using everyday items in logical ways in slightly off-kilter scenarios – and even when the game does lean in on the supernatural side of things, it all still follows a consistent internal logic, assisted greatly by a helpful personal log that's updated whenever anything of importance happens – as well as some occasional on-the-nose dialogue between your party of two to help keep things on track.
Other problems require a more old-school approach – the sort that relies on you, the player, to pay attention to things that you have seen but may not have explicitly been commented on by your character or written down as "A Thing I Have Noticed" in the log. As an example, at one point you have to give a partner a boost so they can reach an object hiding up high and your choice of potential helper is a rather chunky nerd, an unwilling adult woman, or a light and nimble child – the solution is obvious when you apply some common sense to it, but adjusting to the game's "outside the box" expectations can take a while. The good news is that while you are restricted to bringing just one of these companions with you at a time (you are told that any more would attract the attention of the dead) you can swap between them without any penalty whenever you're back at the mansion "hub" – and you can return there at any time and as often as you like during an investigation. The game's "You'll die at dawn!" warning may be true, but it thankfully isn't tracked in real-time; the passage of the night in Death Mark – always accompanied by a violent pain in the amnesiac lead's ghostly scar and the ominous tolling of the mansion's grandfather clock – is instead used to mark serious turning points, helping to break up the puzzling into chunks and letting you know in the most unsettling way possible that you're getting closer to unravelling the mystery.
No matter how careful you are, it's only natural that at some point you'll encounter a ghost during your investigations, and this is where the plainly-put "Live or Die" system comes in. These brushes with danger bring up a multiple-choice question-and-answer session on the situation at hand, the pressure coming not only from the dead threatening to end your existence in the most unpleasant ways imaginable but also by the rapid draining of your spiritual power as you think over the available options – no prizes for guessing what happens when it reaches zero.
Do you run, or stand your ground? Do you answer honestly, or lie? The responses offered to you are always the same and always complete, so the correct reply is definitely in there somewhere, but keeping a cool head and quickly recalling the relevant details of the investigation so far will make surviving these encounters much more likely. And if you do get it wrong? Often this gives a hefty but survivable 500 point deduction to your total spirit power, meaning that so long as you've been mostly right in these deadly gauntlets then you can still come out alive if a little worse for wear – but some poor responses can kill you outright regardless of your starting power level and should be avoided at all costs. Deaths that occur via these events resolve quickly and violently, and the ability to immediately restart them keeps these false ends feeling more like a self-contained horror experience than a time-wasting chore – as well as allowing you to brute-force your way through the questions if the correct solution just isn't coming to mind.
After all of your efforts, there's only one way each night can end, and that's with a direct battle against the chapter's most dangerous spirit – who'd have thought a tense horror adventure like this would have honest-to-goodness boss battles? These fights play out as turn-based puzzles, with the boss strictly following a set routine that you need to work out how to counter using the knowledge and items you found during your evening's research. These are fittingly the most difficult parts of the game as they ask you to draw on every last detail you've encountered to come up with an effective strategy that will not only vanquish the boss but keep you and (optionally) your partner alive as well.
Everything matters here; you need the right items in the right order – and the right partner by your side too. Now failing because you have all of the right things but didn't bring along the correct companion sounds like a terrible waste of time, but the clues are given to you beforehand if you've been paying attention. When the game takes the time to make an event out of a child-ghost hating adults and your choice of partner is an adult or a child... it might be a good idea to take the kid. Some of the more heavy-handed hints include a rattled companion going so far as to say "I can't do this any more, I can't fight ghosts, I'm sorry" – that was your warning to swap them out before the final battle. And if you carry on regardless... well, you can't really blame the game for that one.
And if you do get it all completely wrong, all is still not lost; Death Mark has a fantastic checkpoint/restart system that can get you back on your feet even if you've decided to completely ignore the game's thirty save slots while you've been playing. If you die during the normal investigative "Live or Die" parts of the game you can either reload any save you've created or head back to the last checkpoint, which will always be the most recent significant thing you've done before triggering a life-or-death scenario. If you lose during a boss battle you still have those two options available to you, but you can also quickly restart the battle from the beginning, allowing you to try out alternative strategies without any long setups to spoil the mood. Having such a thorough and helpful set of restart choices is a huge benefit to a game that wants you to investigate everything while still keeping the outcomes dangerous and unpredictable; this system means death is still the worst outcome and something you want to avoid, but it's not such a huge setback that you feel you could end up worse off for doing the one thing the game wants you to do – poke around abandoned buildings trying to exorcise ghosts.
Sadly, even a game as stunningly scary as this does have two noticeable issues – one direct from the developers, and another introduced during the localisation process. The first is the odd way the vast majority of the spirits you face and the people who end up dead in Death Mark's world are women, all unfailingly treated as some sort of eye-candy – even when they're being brutally mutilated while tied down on an operating table or are corpses drilled full of holes.
Now some torn clothing or even full nudity can do a great job of highlighting the vicious and unforgiving nature of vengeful spirits from beyond the grave, but when in contrast every man in the story is without exception either a spooky spirit or a disgustingly dead human corpse, it does encourage you to roll your eyes rather than gasp in horror when the game wheels out yet another "disfigured but attractive" lady for you to... whatever you're supposed to feel when presented with that sort of image. You're told early on "The Mark doesn't discriminate" – unless it's a flimsy excuse to gawp at some decomposing boobies, apparently. On a more positive note, at least Experience had the guts to take this disturbing horror-sexy train of thought to its logical extreme, as best demonstrated by the woman-monster with a pig's head filled with shark teeth (stay with us) who's using one of her free snake arms to 'intimately pleasure' herself as she closes in on you, her exposed bright red satin bra thoughtfully pushing up her ample human breasts. In for a penny...?
The all new and English-exclusive issue unfortunately lies with the translation – or more accurately, the typos found within it. There are just a few per chapter but that's far too many and too often for a game that relies so heavily on using the quality of the text to draw you into the experience. It's especially disappointing to see that these are all really basic unforced errors that should have been caught before the game went to retail – from finger slips like an "of" instead of an "if" or "deptartment" to incorrect or missing words that make some sentences sound like hurried Tweets; "I pass down the familiar road to hotel" is one unfortunate example.
It's a rare game that can start off tense and then continuously ratchets up the mood to almost unbearable levels until the final moments of the final chapter – and an even rarer one that has enough alternative characters, dialogue, and endings to make it worth playing through more than once – but Death Mark succeeds where it really counts. There's plenty on offer here for both horror fans as well as those looking for a mystery that requires more than hoarding knick-knacks and waiting patiently for your character to officially notice something before you can proceed.