The market of fear is flourishing on PSVita. Death Mark has indeed actually released between Yomawari Night Alone, its sequel Yomawari Midnight Shadows and the visual novel Iwai Hime Matsuri. All those titles aim at delivering a terrifying experience to the player. And at this game, Death Mark might be the best.
As you can fathom from the title, Death Mark revolves around the “mark”. Those who come to bear that eerie symbol soon die in some atrocious way. The story opens when the main character, who has the mark on its arm, wanders in the city with nothing more than a business card saying just “Kujô manor”.
There he hears only bad news : the mark will kill him soon, and is erasing his memory to prevent all resistance. But dying without putting up a fight is not an option : the desperate struggle against the mark and the dark forces behind it begins.
The protagonist will have to seek rumors about urban legends here and there to find something connected with the mark. As in a good old point’n click game, Death Mark’s environments are composed of still screens on wich you use Vita’s stick to look into certain parts and retrieve key items. Exploration mechanics aren’t especially revolutionary : find a key to open a door, drive off creatures with chemicals, combine objects, etc. So far, Experience deliver the usual stuff, in a plainly linear adventure by the way.
But where Death Mark is a little more original is in sudden secquences called Live or Die : like the naming says, your character is threatened of immediate death and you need to choose the best fitted action or line among the three displayed. The right choices are to be deduced from little hints given in the narrative or in the chapter files. Searching, logic and awereness will be necessary to get through it like a pro. There is also a limit which is no less than the protagonist’s Soul points. Any wrong answer costs a great deal of soul, or even leads to immediate death. Although those secquences have a strong psychological effect, their actual value in terms of gameplay is limited since you can restart without limitation in case of game over.
You are not alone. Other bearers of the mark, the shirushibito (shirushi = mark, hito = person) will knock at Kujô’s door every chapter. You’ll have to choose carefully with whom you’ll be be doing your night trips, because you can take only one at a time. And it’s quite important given that some of them will be necessary to progress at some points, to cross a particular path of defeat a particular boss. Rather modest title, Death Mark includes very few animations so you’ll have to do with the character design. Art is pretty far for manga standarts but it fits this particular atmsophere, and the sidekicks are varied enough to please everyone.
Each chapter ends with an epic encounter against the ghost that haunts the perimeter. It involves several turns in which you have to resist the monster’s offensive and then try to annihilate it when it’s close enough. You have on you all the items gathered during the chapter and the challenge will be to find out which ones to use or to combine. But that doesn’t stop here because simply destroying the ghost will only get you the bad end of the chapter. To secure the good end, bring everyone back home alive and witness the true ending of the game, you must save the soul of the ghost by another logic. Thus there are two levels of challenge in Death Mark, because you need to analyse more deeply all the clues to experience the ultimate satisfaction of seeing your favorite mates come back alive.
But the greatest aspect of Death Mark is its astonishingly perfect atmosphere. Even more than Yomawari Night Alone, Death Mark creates a terrifying atmosphere that lasts from the first second to the last second of the game. You almost have to prepare yourself psychologically before opening every door. Such is Experience’s mastery in arousing suspense and handling the fear of the unknown. The constant but yet uncertain menace of the ghost puts you on edge during all the exploration, and the sound environment doubles that effect. The silence is widely used of course, but the game also features striking orchestral compositions in critical moments. Finally, Death Mark is full of creepy sounds that will make you jolt of sweat : a military song coming from nowhere, howls in the forest, the ticktock of the clock, the very same that periodically tells you that you have only a few hours, or seconds, to live… Death Mark has almost no voice acting unfortunately, but the ghosts’ icy muttering will drive you to anguish.
Inevitably full of corpses, Death Mark shows atrocious deaths and misshapen ghosts who only show their true self in the last turn of the last encounter. Fear quickly turns to trauma to the point you might hesitate when turning off the lights at night (I did). Last but not least, Death Mark is game that plays with your emotions at all times, making you unsure of the outcome even in the last seconds of the good end. Well told, the Experience-developed game benefits from an intriguing story that unfolds progressively alongside the side narratives (in which chapter 3 is truly excellent), maintaining a great deal of suspense until the very end. Its only drawback is being short (10 to 15 hours long), but here again Death Mark compensates by a friendly price : 4000 ¥, that is to say 30-40% cheaper than your average PSVita game in Japan.
Gifted with an unforgettable atmosphere, Death Mark gathers all the qualities to be a champion of fear on Vita. Absolutely striking how a modest Point’n Click reaches such a high level of mastery in direction, storytelling, sound that easily competes with AAA survival-horror titles. My most intense experience of the year, and one the greatest games ever on the system.