Today I’d like to talk to you about the visual novel series, Spirit Hunter, known in Japan as Shinrei Horror (心霊ホラー), a series that seems to have passed many by, but is definitely worth your consideration.
The first game, Death Mark, was initially released in 2017 and an English translation was released a year later. In it, you play that old video game protagonist favourite, an amnesiac, who discovers a strange mark (the “Death Mark” of the title) upon his wrist that he learns is a sign of a curse. The curse will kill him at dawn, unless he investigates and defeats a series of spirits with the aid of various companions who have also been marked.
The second, NG, was released in Japan in 2018 and internationally in 2019. This time, your character is a juvenile delinquent who must investigate spirits in order to protect loved ones; he is aided in this by a similar cast of companions and the discovery of a strange supernatural skill. Each game is standalone, although NG features an optional collection mechanic which refers back to the events of the Death Mark.
Gameplay is standard investigative visual novel fare, split between finding clues and making decisions. However, to increase tension during frightening spirit encounters, a timer is used; poor decisions can reduce your timer by significant chunks, or zero it completely, leading to your demise. Thankfully, the game is forgiving, and allows you to retry, which is helpful when there’s a whole series of decisions to make!
Both games have good or bad endings, connected to how well you protect your companions – be warned, even if you defeat a spirit, the way in which you do it may lead to the curse affecting someone else. Your companions are an interesting bunch, particularly in NG, where they feel properly fleshed out and intriguing in their own rights. Many have unique skills or attributes that help you in your investigation, so choosing the correct companion for each investigation can save you a lot of time.
But enough of that – we’re here for the horror! Spirit Hunter delivers the chills in force, and in different ways. Much of it is quite traditional Asian horror in style (J-horror in particular), using creeping dread to great effect before shocking you with an effectively timed jumpscare. However, what makes it stand out amongst similar games is the body horror; there’s some truly grotesque imagery in both games, and the beautiful, elegant, watercolour style art somehow makes it appear even more shocking in its detail. It also deals with a lot of different forms of body horror, just to make sure that anyone playing is likely to be freaked out by at least one murder. The use of slight animation instead of static imagery when encountering a spirit also helps to really increase the feeling of revulsion when they appear. Music, sound design and voice acting are also used to great effect to keep the player on the edge of their seat during the scary segments, or relax them during the calmer parts so that the upcoming horror is more shocking.
The spirits themselves are both frightening and sympathetically dealt with; each has their own unique backstory which leads you to sympathise with their despair and need for vengeance, whilst still being horrified by their grotesque appearance and disturbing murders. Many of the subjects dealt with are very serious and upsetting, but they generally feel tactfully handled within the context of the game, and require you think carefully about their circumstances and desires in order to deal with them in the most effective way.
If you like beautiful art combined with grotesque body horror, and disturbing stories told with sympathy, you would do well to pick up these atmospheric titles. There is a third game which has been crowdfunded and is scheduled for release in 2022, but interestingly, they seem to be moving away slightly from the investigative visual novel format to what appears to be more like a role-playing game. The beautiful visuals and sound design look to be remaining, however, so it should still be worth checking out.
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