Horror games are usually not my jam, but with a story set during the Ghost Month, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM certainly caught my attention.
Initially titled Short Creepy Tales: 7PM, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is a 1-hour narrative-driven horror adventure game by indie developer Cellar Vault Games. Published by Chorus Worldwide Games in September 2020 for the PC (Windows), this first installment in the Paper Ghost Stories series brings players to a small neighborhood in Malaysia where three children experienced strange events during the lunar seventh month.
One Fine Day During the Seventh Month…
In Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM, we first see three school-age children — Wen, Ming, and Lun — meeting up to watch a Hungry Ghost Festival stage show that was about to start. During their brief conversation wherein all three wore troubled faces, it is hinted that something unusual happened earlier that day. Very soon, the story rewinds to that morning, when the three were sitting in the outdoor courtyard listening to their elderly neighbor, Aunty Fung, recalling a true account.
As a narrative game, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM features plenty of substantial conversations between characters, which are presented in the fashion of an ADV visual novel. Similar to playing a visual novel, you will advance the scene by going through the dialogue text and choosing a response whenever a choice menu pops up. Several dialogue choices and even conversations, depending on when they are triggered, will either open up or close off extra scenes and access to optional side quests. Other times, however, different dialogue choices simply provide a different conversational outcome, some of which reveal more interesting information, without affecting the rest of the game content. Moreover, none of the choices changes the final ending.
When it comes to choices, dialogue choices are overall clear with their intended outcomes. Not once have I picked a dialogue choice, thinking it would lead me to a certain result and then discovering it meant a different thing. Everything is pretty clear-cut, especially for questions that expect a yes or no reply.
However, it is not as straightforward to know when you should choose to interact with a specific character in order to unlock additional content. Outside of the visual novel-style portions, you will be moving the playable character about the environment, interacting with various characters and items. Due to how freely the playable character can roam around the place, plus the absence of helpful hints regarding the time-sensitive side tasks’ availability, it is very easy to unknowingly lock yourself out of the extra content. I was disappointed to find out that despite the pair of neighbors seated along the common corridor telling Wen they would be there until dinnertime, I could not actually find them anymore after my turn playing as Wen was over.
The fixed and unannounced rotation of playable characters in Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM, where you play as Wen, then Lun, and finally Ming, further facilitates the unpleasant process of accidentally locking yourself out of optional tasks. Apart from Ming whose segment is the shortest and mostly linear with enforced interactions, Wen and Lun each have their own missable side quests. If you have somehow skipped Wen’s multiple optional tasks while playing as her, you will be permanently locked out of them when playing as Lun, even though some of the content is perfectly applicable to the second kid as well without breaking the narrative. For example, Lun, who asked Wen for some pebbles, totally could have collected them by himself after Wen did not fulfill his request for whatever reason. It certainly seems unfairly punishing for a side task to be entirely locked once the highly specific and narrow opportunity to complete it is unwittingly missed, particularly since the said crucial window is hardly mentioned in the game. Thankfully, the percentage completion is shown at the end of a playthrough, so one can roughly estimate how much extra content they have missed and strategize their subsequent playthrough accordingly.
All side tasks eventually lead to their own simple mini-game. Besides two that have stronger cultural significance, namely packing nasi lemak ingredients and folding joss paper yuan bao, the mini-games are rather thematically generic. This is somewhat a pity given that the writing and art aspects of Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM have distinct Malaysian identity and cultural representations.
Lepaking in the Neighbourhood
One of the unique things about Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM that reeled me in is the Manglish used by the characters. Since Manglish shares much of its lexicon and grammar with Singlish, I (as a Chinese Singaporean) immediately sense familiarity in the way the characters talk. Understandably, players who are unfamiliar with either English-based creole languages may be put off by their non-standard English language usage, including sentence structures that are ungrammatical for standard English. Nevertheless, the majority of the characters’ dialogue lines are more colloquial English than Manglish. The game also includes short footnotes for a handful of non-English words used, which briefly explain what those words mean under the given contexts. Not all Manglish words are annotated with an explanation, though, like the ubiquitous tone enhancer suffixes lah and loh, or the Chinese concept of heaty food. While players may not exactly learn the nuances of the local language via this game, the annotations in place are on the whole sufficient, not distracting, and self-explanatory.
On top of Manglish, the next and perhaps the most attention-grabbing aspect of Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM has to be its paper art aesthetics. Not only is it befitting of the childlike image for the cast of mainly children, but the paper art style also stands out with its uncommon design. When incorporated into this 2.5D game, the paper art design reminds me of pop-up books I have been fascinated with since young. Moreover, it is strongly tied to the main story, making it a really ingenious aesthetic choice that is both visually striking and thematically relevant.
The paper art aesthetics extend to the visual novel segments as well, where the text box is a piece of rectangular paper that will unfold itself at the start of a new conversational scene. Choice menus are also displayed as a piece of paper, though smaller and with a different design, which makes it easy to differentiate them from the main text box. Furthermore, every time you advance to the next line, a page-turn sound effect can be heard.
Sitting in harmony at the sides of the wrinkled paper text box during the visual novel segments are the half-body character sprites. The characters, drawn in a semi-realistic style, show a myriad of facial expressions and poses that aptly convey their current emotions. Some of the exaggerated facial expressions are quite laughter-inducing and thus more memorable than the rest. For instance, the shocked look of a bespectacled boy who moved his pair of spectacles down his nose is an iconic gesture and a fun literal depiction of a particular Chinese saying expressing surprise.
The paper art aesthetic, however, is not the only noteworthy point about Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM. Similar to the presence of Manglish which added much Malaysian flavor to the game, the Malaysian setting is observed through the environmental design. One of the most prominent objects would be the apartment building where the three children will walk up and down the stairs. Several details about the illustrated close-knit neighborhood are discovered through the three kids’ inner monologues as they interact with various items or characters, such as Wen recounting about pasar malam (night market) at one point. Even the ambient sound effects carry clues too, like the ringing bell signaling a mobile ice cream vendor nearby.
It’s Ghost Month, Don’t Play Play Hor
What’s more, it is not just a general Malaysian culture that is showcased in the game. With a story set during the lunar seventh month, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM naturally and as expectedly touches on the Chinese Malaysians’ way of paying respect to the deceased. One of the Chinese neighbors can be found dropping more joss paper into a joss paper bin as the fire within the bin continues to burn. Certain Chinese religion-based beliefs on protection against spirits are subtly sprinkled throughout the game in the form of home interior design and character conversations as well.
Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM’s thoughtful visual design is truly commendable, and I am not referring to only the visible cultural elements. Perhaps this is a mere tiny portion of the visuals, but I find the depiction of the joss paper bin impressive: apart from the rising grey smoke, the bin’s immediate surroundings also look wavy — an indication of the burning fire’s heat. The only slight disappointment is the comparatively few appearances of non-Chinese characters in the multiracial Malaysia setting. I was half-expecting to run into more Malay characters around the neighborhood in spite of the story’s backdrop being the Hungry Ghost Festival, an important occasion observed predominantly by the Chinese population.
Consistent with the story’s setting, the horror elements in Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM surround the Hungry Ghost Festival too. While there are some parts that make great use of both environmental visuals and ambient sounds to create a creepy atmosphere, most of the horror is presented as jump scares. However, right before most jump scare sequences began, the game would frequently stutter momentarily on my laptop, so I was basically (and luckily) spared from getting spooked. Funnily enough, it was not the intentional jump scares but something else that managed to surprise me; when I had no idea where the hotspots for traversing to a different area are located, I was often taken aback whenever my playable character slipped past somewhere, and emerged into a new area suddenly.
Wah, So Fast 7 PM Already
Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is a short game that nevertheless feels quite packed with cultural references. As mentioned, the playable character rotates through Wen, Lun, and Ming. But only the first playable character has access to the most content in the whole game. While I wished that Ming had a longer segment with some more free activities to do or chats to have, the short story narrated through the three children is nonetheless complete. It is a simple tale with an innocent beginning that builds up to a disquieting climax and eventually washes ashore some heartfelt emotions along with fresh perspectives on the main characters and events. Although some details in the plot are not expanded upon in the game, they are ultimately not crucial in piecing together what the main story is about. In fact, I find the deliberate withholding of plot details is carried out skilfully here; the main story is not marred and at the same time, sufficient intriguing leads are left open to create curious anticipation for the next Paper Ghost Stories series’ installment.
The ending is generally satisfactory for the type of slice-of-life story told in Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM. Sadly, most of the characters are not very memorable. Many characters have a rather superficial characterization, while some like Ming suffered from a terribly sparse involvement in the first place.
Content Rating and Accessibility Aspects
Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. The ESRB content descriptors applicable to this horror game are mild blood and gore, and the use of tobacco. Things normally associated with horror games, such as sudden loud sounds and disturbing images, are to be expected in this title.
Built with Unreal Engine 4, Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM utilizes both keyboard and mouse controls. The controls scheme is fixed with each function mapped to a single control key, but there is no option to remap them. A concise controls tutorial is shown when players gain control of the playable character for the first time in-game. Although this tutorial cannot be accessed again afterward, almost all interaction cues are clearly labeled with the control keys used. For example, the bottom right corner of every mini-game screen will show a looped animation of the mouse controls needed, which is always some combination of moving the mouse around and clicking the left mouse button. When the playable character is near an interactable character or item, a pop-up with a speech bubble or hand will show along with an “E”. A space bar icon is also displayed at the bottom right corner of various text boxes.
The default control scheme for Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is conventional enough to be intuitive. It uses WASD for character movement on the map and the “Esc” key for the in-game pause menu. The only time I have a difficult time with the game controls is during the second portion of the joss paper folding mini-game. I tried dragging the cue paper in the arc described but after multiple failures, apparently what I was doing is incorrect. Yet, I still have no idea how I ended up completing that mini-game with my frantic random mouse clicks.
The store page for Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM notes that it has full controller support. Unfortunately, I couldn’t test this, so can’t comment on the experience using one.
It is of note that while the mini-games are all reliant on visual-based instructions, there is one mini-game that requires players to listen to its audio cues as well. In addition, none of the mini-games have time limits, though one mini-game has a rhythm-based component.
The game performance of Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM on my laptop is okay. Most of the time, moving the playable character around is smooth. But as mentioned, the game often freezes right as a jump scare sequence begins.
Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM does not provide any customizable settings for the graphics, audio, and text.
Of the three, the lack of text settings would likely negatively impact one’s experience with the game the most. First, players cannot choose a different font should they find the default font difficult to read. Second, the text speeds are fixed, and while this is a smaller issue during segments where players can wait and advance the text manually, it poses quite a problem during cutscene-like parts where the text will advance automatically on auto mode. To make matters worse, there is no way to pause the voiceless cutscenes when the texts are rolling on auto mode. Thus, if one finds the auto text speed too fast, they could only look on helplessly. Third, some of the text has special styling, such as the letters quavering in fear. This cannot be disabled.
In spite of the lack of accessibility options to make playing this text-heavy game more comfortable for the individual, there is one thing I like with regard to the visual novel segments: the character sprite of the current speaker is highlighted by bringing it forward while the non-speaker character’s sprite is made smaller and darker.
Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM uses autosaves only. The in-game pause menu has both “Quit to Menu” and “Exit Game”, but this pause menu cannot be called up during the visual novel and cutscene segments. There is no skip function for those two segments either, making it an inconvenient case of either quickly tapping through the dialogue lines or waiting for the cutscene to finish, or force quitting the game should one have to exit the game during those segments.
Eye-catching paper art aesthetics aside, the biggest lure of Paper Ghost Stories: 7PM is its Malaysian setting and focus on the Hungry Ghost Festival for its horror narrative. While jump scares form a good portion of the scare tactics in this title, a few stand out because of their ties to the Hungry Ghost Festival. As for the other scare tactic, both the audio and visuals work nicely in tandem to create a sense of undisturbed peace in one moment and unsettling tension in the next. The slice-of-life story conveyed in this short game is pretty short and sweet, even if it feels like nothing quite happened in this first installment of the Paper Ghost Stories series. So long as you are not takut (afraid), for a short horror game with a refreshing Southeast Asian setting:
PAPER GHOST STORIES: 7PM IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Kuro’s Wallet for a PC review code for this title.
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A person with many hobbies (and even more WIPs), KuroKairin plays, playtests, and reviews PC games. She loves games with good stories that bring her on an emotional and thought-provoking journey. Her favourite genres include otome visual novel, point and click, puzzle, and RPG. Follow her @KuroKairin.