Genre: Visual Novel, Horror
Platform: PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PS Vita
Warning: The games contain graphic depictions of heavy gore. Squeamish people should play at their own discretion.
The Spirit Hunter series is a new project developed by Experience and directed by Motoya Ataka. It’s the first adventure game series by Experience, as the company previously focused on role-playing games. The series is composed of two installments —with a third in its crowdfunding phase— and explores the psychological horror genre. Unlike your typical murder mystery visual novel, the Spirit Hunter universe focuses on tragedies and disturbances caused by supernatural beings.
Every game has multiple chapters, or cases, dedicated to its spirits. Each of these cases is split into an investigation phase and a boss battle. In the boss battle, the player uses the knowledge and items acquired during the investigation to help the spirit to pass on or destroy it. Although the second method is easier, it comes at the price of other character’s lives. Saving before boss battles is heavily recommended to backtrack your steps in case the worst comes to worst.
Spirit Hunter provides a small cast of characters that can join you in each chapter. You can switch between partners at any point in the investigation, but as described above, the fate of the partner you fight the boss battle with will depend on your choices. Since each companion has weaknesses and strengths, you’ll need to take a specific one with you to get past obstacles in some investigations. Although changing partners can be annoying in bigger areas, like in most of Death Mark’s zones, the developers improve on this aspect in NG. I was positively surprised by how many of Death Mark’s faults were corrected in its sequel.
Published by Aksys Games on October 31st, 2018, Death Mark is the first volume of the Spirit Hunter series. The volume is set in H City, where paranormal sightings reign and start leaving mysterious marks on their witnesses. These marks, shaped like dog bites, cause memory loss and eventual death. Yashiki, the protagonist, is an amnesiac middle-aged man who wakes up in front of a manor he has no recollection of. Thus begins his deadly journey to get rid of his “Mark” and recover his memories.
Setting and Art Direction
Death Mark employs stunning visual resources and audio cues to immerse the player in its dark and unsettling atmosphere. The game’s dynamic setting will place you in diverse situations that will evoke strong feelings of claustrophobia or agoraphobia. The monster design is masterfully done, portraying the mannerisms and personality of the spirits to give you an idea of what they were like before their death. The illustrations know exactly how they want you to react and drive home the horrors of the supernatural deaths surrounding the player.
In spite of the promising art direction, it is true that the first entry of the Spirit Hunter series loses credibility when you realize that there’s a… pattern… in the portrayal of women in its CGs. I assure you, five half-naked women are no coincidence. It’s hard to continue taking the game seriously when it discusses the chilling murders committed by a spirit…and then displays an illustration of a naked woman entangled in vines in “tentacle” fashion.
Death Mark encourages in-depth investigation of its landscapes and actively rewards you with information to solve the case you’re dealing with. The opposite also holds true — not exploring every nook and cranny may lead to heavy punishment in the form of death for you, or worse, your companions. Your death is more favorable than that of your comrades since a Game Over is much more forgiving than a permanent death that will carry on for the rest of the story.
Death Mark has two possible endings: a Normal Ending, which by all means plays out like a Bad Ending, and a Good Ending, which is the canon conclusion and allows you to play the DLC chapter. The only way to obtain the Good Ending is for every partner to be alive. This situation, along with the punishing nature of Death Mark’s investigations, makes for an annoying mechanic and a great fault. While one may argue that it’s only right for the player to be punished for not unveiling every part of the mystery, the problem lies in the fact that the boss battles aren’t manually triggered by the player. Acquiring certain pieces of evidence is enough to trigger the boss battle, hence the game can drag you into a case’s final fight even when you’re attempting to investigate everything. If you value your time and patience, you’ll find yourself saving way too often when nearing a chapter’s conclusion.
Death Mark’s utmost priority is its numerous horror elements, so, unfortunately, its characters are neglected. For the most part, the game throws new characters at you every chapter, and your previous partners leave for the rest of the main story. Considering how every character’s possible death plays a huge role in the outcome of the story, it’s ironic that you can’t build any significant emotional attachment to any of them. Death Mark treats its companions as shells to deliver its plot and doesn’t provide more than a superficial description and personality archetype for each of them. This situation does get better throughout the DLC chapter, as the player gets a brief look at the cast’s dynamics in the aftermath of the main narrative. This extra proves that the installment would improve greatly if only more care was placed in its characters. Death Mark is by no means a bad game, but it is an exemplar of wasted potential.
Published by Aksys Games on October 10th, 2019, NG is the second volume of the Spirit Hunter series. Unlike in Death Mark, NG’s main protagonist —default name, Akira— is a hot-headed and orphaned teen who was legally adopted by his aunt. Fate entangles him with one of the deadliest spirits, Kaguya, who continuously drags him into “games” that he must beat to survive. Rather than being thrown into a critical situation and isolated from society (Death Mark), your normal life continues and is regularly disrupted by constant hauntings from each spirit you encounter.
Death Mark’s manor worked as a safe haven that kept you away from danger. NG, in comparison, encourages you to continue interacting with the city and your own apartment is far from a refuge. As a whole, NG provides a unique experience that contrasts the first installment in almost every way.
That’s not to say that Death Mark is forgotten. Spirit Hunter reminds you that its two games are tightly bound together by referencing the original cast on various occasions. There’s a strong emphasis on Yashiki and Mashita because of their commitment to solving supernatural cases, and of course, these are all hints towards the plot of the third entry in the series. Although NG works as a stand-alone game, the flow of the narrative will be smoother if it’s played after Death Mark.
Different factors come into play to make NG’s story more immersive and relatable. Its extensive role-playing options, its characters, its setting, and its spirits’ motives.
NG doesn’t just have the usual visual novel choices that influence the plot and either punish or reward you. It also has arbitrary choices during the course of some conversations, in which you can decide how to respond to a character, and it introduces the “Judgement System”. The Judgement System pops up often and allows you to choose your attitude towards a character’s dialogue, be it a question, a request, or a statement. This system will only influence your relationship with the cast, so you’re free to role-play however you want. If your relationship with someone is high enough, you’ll unlock additional information on their profile pages right before the final act of the game.
This installment has a smaller character roster and therefore much better development for each member of its cast. The player has more time with every partner, and many of the dialogues are personal, unlike in Death Mark. The different companions have their own quirks, motivations, and unique dynamics with Akira. Everyone is likable, and thankfully, they remain involved in the story throughout your entire journey. A great side-effect of this improvement is that the strong relationships built with these characters solidify the player’s emotional involvement in the slice of life setting they’re placed in. This allows grim situations to provoke the emotional toll on the player that Death Mark hoped to achieve.
NG fixes another flaw prominent in Spirit Hunter’s first entry: spirit motives. Ultimately, the player’s motivation to solve cases is to find out what happened to the spirits before their death and how to help them move on. Outlandish or unrelatable motives compromise this motivation and end a case on an unrewarding note. Death Mark’s spirits are either a hit or a miss because albeit all of them are terrifying, not all of them are interesting. When a spirit ends up killing for no reason, you’re bound to be disappointed. NG ensures that each spirit has an interesting backstory to encourage your intellectual and emotional investment.
Finally, the icing on the cake for all these narrative improvements is an increased number of endings and ending variants. Every ending is worth watching. As a plus, the Bad Ending contains a satisfying nod to Death Mark and provides a lot of information about one of its characters. The plot twist kind of information.
Story aside, NG also has better resources in the form of better art and more illustrations. Choosing to destroy a spirit is actually worth it since it will unlock exclusive scenes with unique CGs and influence how your ending branches out. The unnecessary fanservice from the previous game was removed, too.
Horror gameplay-wise, the improvements continue.
NG brings a new mode selection that prompts the player to choose a setting for jump scares. This prompt shows up at the beginning of every new game, however, it can be changed later. The mode selection includes three different settings: Off (no scares), Default, and Scary Mode. I mistakenly reasoned that Default would give me the Death Mark treatment, which is not the case. Turns out Death Mark was the Scary Mode all along! Default is a watered-down setting with… no jump scares, really. Feel free to pick Default if you want to focus on your investigations, or Scary Mode if you enjoyed Death Mark.
Investigations no longer throw you into a boss fight following a specific event. The game makes sure you have all the pieces of evidence available before beginning the boss fight, so you don’t need to save like a maniac every three seconds nearing the end of your investigation. If you’re a completionist, do remember to save when the game goes wink wink nudge nudge upcoming boss fight, though. You’ll want to destroy the spirit with both of your partners and reload after obtaining their illustration.
Speaking of partners — switching between them isn’t a pain in the ass anymore. Spirit Hunter now tells you when you need to switch to a different one for a certain section of the investigation instead of having you guess. It also ensures that the areas you need to investigate are smaller in chapters where you need to constantly switch partners.
I took a great liking to NG while playing. It’s a step up from Death Mark in almost every way. I cannot emphasize enough how much greater the series is when paired up with properly developed characters. My only real criticism is that NG’s horror soundtrack and ambient sounds were a downgrade from its predecessor. Hopefully, this will be improved in the upcoming third title.
The Spirit Hunter series is an innovative take on the horror genre in visual novels. Instead of on-the-nose horror, Spirit Hunter focuses on deep-rooted psychological horror that encourages you not to let your guard down. Its stunning visual and audio resources come together to form a highly immersive atmosphere that will suck its players in. Although the first installment of the series has problems treating its characters as more than shells to deliver its plot, the sequel introduces a charming cast of likable characters that complement one another with unique traits and quirks. The series is recommended for any avid visual novel player, and it’s a must-play for fans of franchises such as Ace Attorney, Danganronpa, or Zero Escape.