I’ll admit that I went into Spirit Hunter: Death Mark II with some trepidation. I haven’t played Spirit Hunter: Death Mark or the standalone Spirit Hunter: NG, but the premise of Death Mark II was too interesting for me to pass up.
It’s a sequel to the original Death Mark, which came out in 2017, and there are references to what happened in that game, but since Death Mark II features an entirely new investigation, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much context. Characters from the first game pop up throughout, but the protagonist makes a point of summarising who they are and what their connection to him is, so I never felt completely lost.
It has, however, given me the incentive to look into the other two games.
After the events of the first game, the protagonist has earned a bit of a reputation amongst those interested in the occult. Despite proclaiming that he is, by no means, an expert in all things supernatural, he’s known as the “Spirit Doctor”.
That’s why when strange things start happening at the Konoehara Academy – when threatening notices start to appear and students start to mysteriously disappear – the protagonist is called in to investigate.
We learn early on in the game that The Departed is the root of the problem and is hiding within the school, but we don’t know where. Everyone is a suspect, so you’ll find yourself scrutinising each new character you meet, deciding whether they are friend or foe.
Whilst you spend most of the time investigating different spirits, that knowledge is always in the back of your mind. The Departed is the one behind everything, so while we’re dealing with the other spirits, we’re trying to save their intended targets whilst also trying to uncover who The Departed is so we can put a stop to them.
Building suspense in a relatively static medium like a visual novel is no easy feat, and Spirit Hunter does succeed to a degree. It did a great job of creating an eerie atmosphere through its use of music and ambient sound, and the artwork is thoroughly chilling in some parts, but I found that most of the game’s jump scares were unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good jump scare, but in Spirit Hunter, they just appeared to be too random and too infrequent to have any real impact. I’d be exploring the school, and then suddenly some creepy spirit or threatening words would pop up on the screen. Then the protagonist would just carry on as if nothing had happened. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it was rare that something actually happened after these jump scares, so to me, it just made things feel a little fragmented.
There is, however, the option to remove them altogether and adjust the level of gore from the menu, so you can still enjoy the game if you’re not a fan of either.
Perhaps it’s a double-edged sword since The Departed will seek to use them against you, but you’ll spend most of the game accompanied by another character. Each has their own stats that might make them better suited for different tasks.
The first character we’re introduced to is the new headmaster of the school. Despite being sceptical of the existence of spirits, he calls the protagonist in to solve the case and prevent more disappearances. As you investigate the different spirits haunting the school to uncover the truth behind The Departed, you’ll be joined by others: two students from the school and then returning Mark Bearers from the first game. You don’t need to worry if you haven’t played the first game because the protagonist will give a brief rundown of who these characters are.
The only problem with this diverse cast is that most of them don’t stick around long. In the case of the Mark Bearers, each one mostly sticks around for the duration of one chapter, helping you deal with one spirit before going off on their merry way. This didn’t leave a lot of time for character development.
To put an end to the game’s malevolent spirits, you first need to do some investigating to uncover the source of the grudge that is keeping them from moving on. You’ll do this by talking to students and faculty and exploring the school to learn about their tragic past.
Aside from a few excursions, most of your time will be spent within the school grounds, and the layout gets a little boring because each floor is essentially the same, and you’re often locked out of rooms that aren’t relevant to the particular case you’re investigating. This part of the game is a 2D side-scroller, where you need to interact with little glowing points of interest to try and learn the source of the spirit’s grudge before you face off against them in a Suspensive Act.
When a Suspensive Act begins, you’re given a selection of choices to make based on what you know and what items you might have picked up along the way. Each choice has a success rate that can be increased by either having a different character perform it or by teaming up with them to perform it together. Succeeding doesn’t necessarily mean that the choice you have made is the right one though. Making the wrong decision will anger the spirit and cause it to lash out and deal spirit damage. If your spirit or that of your companion reaches zero, it’s game over, and you’ll have to restart from just before the encounter.
Most Suspensive Acts have multiple stages to them, but the stakes never felt like they were that high. You can afford to make the incorrect choices multiple times before you’re met with a game over, which was a little disappointing, and since there were only a couple of options to choose from, it felt like the game was holding my hand a little too much.
Spirit Hunter: Death Mark II has a lot of qualities that make it a solid horror visual novel. I enjoyed the fact that it drew on Japanese folklore for its spirits, such as Hanako of the Toilet, and the storyline was sufficiently dark and kept me hooked throughout. The pacing was good, with details about The Departed being woven throughout the other investigations, so everything felt connected rather than just being thrown together in an attempt to drag the game out longer. It was presented very well too, with the sound and visuals coming together to create a thoroughly creepy atmosphere.
That said, there are certainly areas where the game could have been improved. The main one that springs to mind is the use of jump scares, which I just didn’t find to be as effective as they could have been. Now, I’m not saying that the game should have relied on cheap jump scares throughout, but they were too infrequent to have me on the edge of my seat while exploring the school, and most of the ones we did get seemed to be random rather than tied to particular events or locations.
Publisher: Aksys Games
Platforms: PS4/5, Switch, PC
Release Date: 15th February 2024