Back in my youth I loved buying books that were categorized as ‘choose your own adventure’. They were books with multiple endings. You would read a few pages and then be given a choice. The option you chose told you which page to turn to in order to find out how your choice panned out. They were a lot of fun and made long car trips bearable. Fast forward an amount of years I’m not going to reveal and we now have a graphic novel game like Death Mark. It’s basically a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, but with graphics, music, sound, and gameplay features. This isn’t a walking simulator because you would need to be able to walk for it to be categorized as such. I guess I’ll call it an interactive graphic novel or even a survival horror interactive graphic novel. If you are intrigued by the idea or have enjoyed ‘games’ like this before then read on for sure. If not, then you’re more like me than you may well deserve, but allow me to spin a yarn that may solidify your position, or, mayhap, change your mind.
As we’re starting to get used to, this is a game that was released on the PS Vita earlier this year. You can get the limited edition physical version which contains a 96-page hard cover art book, soundtrack CD, a temporary tattoo of the fatal mark, and a slipcase to “entomb everything”, per the Aksys Games site. That version will set you back $69.99 with the digital release coming in at $49.99 at release.
The entirety of the game is based around the main character, played by you, who has lost his memory. On his right wrist is a “Death Mark” that looks like a tattoo of some fangs, almost as if he had been bitten by a dog. The only clue the amnesiac has is a card in his pocket with the address of a mansion and the name of the person who lives there. Upon arrival at the mansion, the race against time to save him and the others who happen upon the mansion begins. Having no memory of who the main character is, you get the ability to enter any name you want. The other characters will call you by that name, and it’s a bit more immersive if you choose your own name. The story is very heavy in the supernatural with inanimate objects coming to life, ghosts walking amongst us, and all other sorts of creepy things that happen that I won’t mention due to spoilers.
The gameplay consists of reading a lot of text, moving from one terrifyingly drawn room to another. You have a flashlight in, apparently, your left hand because you move it around with the left stick. The right stick is used to move through the areas you visit, the first being a rundown and abandoned elementary school. While moving the flashlight beam, you will have sparkly points that signify when you should hit your ‘A’ button to investigate. There were some oddities that I noticed with this; one of the options you have once you look closer at a point of interest is Feel. I thought that was strange considering that you pick items up or whatever. It did start to make more sense as I played through it because you tend to feel your way around items, desks, boxes, or what have you, once you select it. The game is then more of a point and click adventure from there. You are given the option to use items in your inventory on the environment or places of interest. There are times when you will be accosted by a spirit or ghost and you must consider the clues you’ve found and use the items in your inventory to survive the ordeal.
Since this is, in essence, a survival horror… experience, you will be given choices during the long sequences of reading. You can select from choices of what you would like to say next during these dialogue sessions. Let’s say, hypothetically, you’re in a conversation with a young girl who keeps closing her left eye for some insane reason. The game will give you topics you can ask about. Most of the time you will be able to ask all of them. It felt like a reach to get you, the player, involved. They didn’t really have to let you make that decision. However, the part where it absolutely makes a difference is when the screen goes nuts and you get the words LIVE OR DIE posted to the screen. This, as the words would allude to, is a life or death response. Your spirit energy, which is basically your hit points, starts to drain and the longer it takes to make a decision the further that number drops. Then comes the consequence of your choice. You are either safe or dead. There really aren’t any dire effects from dying other than having to wait through the death sequence text messages. You can just choose to come back to the spot where you can answer something else right away or you can go back to your last save. If you think the game is too easy, choose your last save. If you get annoyed when they send you back too far, then you’re like me and you’ll just pick your next response and move on. It can be argued that it makes the game too easy to just respawn immediately at your life and death choice, but I don’t have a better solution to the issue of punishment for choosing poorly. Many games put you back to your last checkpoint, others to your save point. I think the fact that you get to choose is a nice feature. I don’t want to go back through the story I’ve already read through. If you want to, by all means, knock yourself out. I think it’s more of a positive than a negative that they give you this option and it greatly affected my final score.
The music is absolutely haunting. It attempts to heighten the fear factor of certain situations. I don’t know if it really works all that well because I rarely get scared reading books or watching movies. What I do react to is those moments when all is quiet and then loud noises happen and something jumps out of nowhere. While I’m not easily startled, it does happen and it does make you jump. Because of this, I do recommend playing at night or in a dark room, sound up, and enjoy the fear inducing atmosphere the developers are trying to give you. I was playing it on the train on my way to work, listening to a radio show with my headphones connected to my phone. That is not the way to play it. I realized it rather quickly and shut it down and played it properly when I got home. I got so sucked into the game when I did that, however, that I completely forgot that I was supposed to do a podcast with other members of Nintendo Times. I felt awful, but at least it was because I was working on site content, right? Take that as a warning to set an alarm or something while playing Death Mark, you can lose track of time quite easily.
The artwork is very nicely drawn throughout the story. While searching areas with your flashlight, you are going to be surprised by things appearing and disappearing all the time and at unexpected moments. Many of the scenes are like “Where’s Waldo” because there will be faces and such hidden throughout and it’s really easy to miss. Playing this one half-assed will allow you to avoid some really cool things that happen during the story. I’m not really that great at perception, so I’m sure I missed a lot considering how much I did see. Not that it’s needed, but there aren’t any real cut scenes going on. It really is like a graphic novel that they can make come alive; stuff you can’t do on the printed page. At first, I was seriously annoyed at it. I mean, the game has a ‘triple A’ title price. Put some effort into it. I’m going to assume that it was more of an artistic choice and a way to amp the fear factor. My first tussle with a spirit did creep me out a lot. I can’t say scared, but it definitely made my skin crawl by the way it moved on the screen. You may understand what I mean should you get to that same spot in the game.
There were a few areas of the game where the dialogue got really stale. I felt like there were extra lines that could’ve been inferred from context and they didn’t need to spell out as much as they did. However, knowing that the average person is pretty much a moron, it’s probably for the best that they did. I just know that I was tapping “A” quickly in areas to get through those literary swamps I was mired in. Some of the story points were very predictable, too. Not all the time, but some of the time. There were a few plot twists I was delighted to be fooled by. Overall I feel the writing was good and should keep most players entertained from start to finish.
I’ve played through quite a few games like Edith Finch and Detroit that weren’t what I’d really call video games. They felt more like interactive movies. That said, my position on these types of titles has shifted more and more with each that I play. Death Mark has more actual game elements to it than What Happened to the Finch Chick. It has a point and click adventure feel with elements aimed at scaring the player. There is a large amount of reading and I would not recommend it to someone who doesn’t like to. The music is eerie and can beat your emotions into submission really well. This is a mature rated game and I agree that I wouldn’t want my kids to play or watch any part of it. For those of us who have fully developed brains, however, it’s a thriller that will affect you as much as you allow it to. If you scare easily and hate it when you feel that way, maybe pick up Super Mario Party or something. If, however, you enjoy the thrill of a scary story and can immerse yourself in the experience to really enjoy it, then it would be a good investment into raising your pulse. I do believe, as with many games we play, that we get more out of a gaming experience the more we put into it. Draw the curtains, wear the headphones, or crank up the surround sound. Give Death Mark a chance to work its magic on you.
Death Mark Review
Final Thoughts: GOOD
Death Mark is a survival horror interactive graphic novel with point and click adventure gameplay elements that is designed to give the player a suspenseful and scary experience. With a heavy emphasis on reading and paying attention to visual cues, it will give fans of the genre a lot to digest. Those who want more action and adventure will want to look elsewhere.
Jay has been an avid gamer since the Intellivision days. His hobbies include building PCs, 3D modeling and printing, and spending time with his children and dog.