Hungry Ghosts opens not with a context-free FMV montage of epic events yet to come nor an attention grabbing intro neatly ending as your own adventure begins but something far more ominous – a simple text message addressing you directly, warning of all the difficult decisions ahead that cannot be undone. This then seamlessly drifts into a short sequence showing your bewildered avatar stumbling upon the intimidating reaper-engraved gate shown on the box art which then quietly becomes the title screen; and in a stroke of genius you don’t choose to “start the game” from this new menu, you “enter the gate” – an action your character performs the instant you press the button, this entire mesmerising sequence brilliantly merging the player and their avatar into one hazily defined being.
From this moment on Hungry Ghosts refuses to see any divide between you and your character.
From this moment on you are being judged.
The “hungry ghosts” of the title can be found in (amongst other beliefs) Buddhism, and following that particular religious train of thought the hell here and your path through it takes a distinctly different tone from the brimstone and pitchforks that go hand-in-hand with the gothicly biblical-leaning versions of this location. Your goal isn’t to escape the forces of evil or cut a righteous path through satanic hordes but to reach the place of your Final Judgement and be reborn – and exactly what you’ll be reborn as depends on every choice you make on the way there…
Much of this decision making revolves around the conversations and other interactions you have with the spirits you encounter in the underworld. There’s an almost reflexive assumption you’re there to free every poor lost soul you encounter from their eternal torment and treat every voice your hear with nothing but unending empathy – Echo Night style – but blindly rushing to be kind (as far as hell allows) and generous to every needy ghost and talking skull isn’t necessarily the right path if you want to collect as many fate-changing soul fragments as possible – and the spirits in torment may not rush to thank you for your “help” in any case. As the intro takes great pains to point out this game places a huge emphasis on personal choices big and small, clear and ambiguous, and true to that notion how much you find out about these once-people – and what you do or don’t do with that information afterwards – is almost entirely up to you. There’s no need to do everything or solve one of Hungry Ghosts many enclosed areas “correctly” to move on, although rather than going willingly and leaving behind a helpful soul fragment engaging with a spirit early or without possessing all the facts or items you may need could leave you fighting against a terrifying ghost for their fragment instead – and these violent resolutions will have a significant impact on events further down the line.
Fighting ghosts can be tricky for games to get right: If the ghosts are accurate (or “accurate”, depending on your view of the afterlife) then it’s reasonable to expect them to easily float through walls, fade in and out of existence on a whim, and then there’s the whole “already dead” detail to worry about too – which is all good for building atmosphere, but not necessarily much fun or very fair in a fight. Lean too far the other way, playing it safe with solid, collision-obeying, enemies and you’ve automatically improved the combat from the player’s point of view… with zombies under another name. Hungry Ghosts admirably gets the balance just right, giving its spooks plenty of audio and visual clues – their beady glowing eyes visible at all times, wide glowing ripples of light pre-empting their reappearance – enabling you to have a full and fun supernatural experience without getting caught up in any impossible to counter scenarios. However… Hungry Ghosts fighting may be fair, but that’s not the same as good. As far as first-person dark fantasy fighting goes this game is easily outdone in all areas by any King’s Field or Shadow Tower you can think of, and combat soon feels simplistic and samey with only two weapon types (spears and bowguns) and very basic attack options. It’s a shame the fighting isn’t more fluid or varied, but it’s also very clear the combat was never intended to be a focal point in the first place – you have been given a means to defend yourself against the mournful beings that would see you dead(er), rather than a means to take on the afterlife. To put it even more plainly than that – Hungry Ghosts is an adventure game set in a literally hellish landscape, not an action RPG or a survival horror title.
So when you’re wandering the great beyond and threatened by malicious spirits operating under dreamlike rules it just makes sense to break every barrel and fleshy sack you see, methodically hoovering up the useful items within for safety’s sake, right? Maybe not. Hungry Ghosts keeps track not only of your more obvious behaviour – Did you give that person the item they wanted? Did you make the effort to go back to a waiting spirit after a significant event? – but your moment-to-moment actions as well. These are quantified in-game by a short range of “desires” – wantonly destroying things because this is a game and you can or grabbing everything that’s there to be grabbed are two potentially negative behaviours – and while not to be completely avoided (it is deliberately impossible to clear the game if you never indulge in these and other desires) those seeking true rebirth as a human will get a better result by considering the difference between what they need and what they can take. To make things more difficult (and to keep this from becoming an “I can destroy X barrels and no more” exercise) you can at times find yourself possessed by a malevolent spirit that’ll send your best intentions awry if not dealt with quickly; forcing you to consume every edible item in your inventory whether it heals or harms, or attacking everything in sight. To balance this out certain special events (and your behaviour in other scenes too) can significantly reduce your desires too – if you happen to trigger them, that is.
So because of this all items, however apparently insignificant, become something to be considered carefully, which is again backed up by hungry Ghosts fixation on all decisions having meaning: Even small chests or goopy sacks of… whatever the heck you just pierced with your spear may have two or three different common items in them – and you can only ever take one, the others instantly swallowed up by ghostly hands. It makes item pickups a bit of an event and adds a little extra pressure in the process – do I take the health restore or the item that cures a particular curse? There’s no right answer, just a lingering sense of anxiety.
To pick up these items, open doors, throw sacks of blood, and perform virtually any other interaction within Hungry Ghosts world you don’t press a button or pick an option form a menu but reach out using the analogue stick – the forward motion mimicking the movement of your own arm. The purpose of this extended animation soon becomes clear: It’s not always safe to reach out for something. Blood-red mouths full of teeth may snap at your fingers or a ghostly hand may violently grab your wrist and your only option is to shake yourself free before it kills you. To stop these random (and infrequent) events becoming an life-sapping irritation it is possible to withdraw your hand if you’re quick enough – or even expertly time your grab between gnashing ghost-teeth – the choice, as always, is yours…
And while this game – and any other – can ultimately still be reduced to “Go [here], do [thing], receive [item]” Hungry Ghosts always makes you believe the world you’re in is reacting organically to your own decisions, and if you choose to walk through impenetrable shadows or plunge into a mysterious whirlpool the story simply continues on instead of forcing you to reload and take the “correct” path. Whether something good or bad happens because of it… well. That’ll become clear with time. And if that sounds a little woolly – it’s supposed to. The mysteries in here aren’t meant to be neatly puzzled out and cleared in one perfect run but played and re-played (more than appropriate, considering the central theme of cyclical death and rebirth) until you finally achieve the rebirth you wanted.
Hungry Ghosts is a game with a very clear vision of what it wants to be and admirably sets about bending every fibre of its being, right down to the status screen offering to hold a virtual mirror up to your avatar’s face, to achieve it. It’s a deeply unsettling experience that uses its malicious ghosts, talking skulls, and hanged characters as part of the very fabric of the world – and your own journey through it – rather than ghoulish set dressing, and for all the pools of blood, grim story fragments, and writhing don’t looks Hungry Ghosts always feels horrible because a potentially redemptive journey through hell itself should be horrible, rather than because a creepy developer was a little too invested in seeing imagined people suffer.
There’s a full English language guide on GameFAQs if you’d like to play the game for yourself: however following this to the letter (and it does need to be followed to the letter due to the shifting nature of Hungry Ghost’s world) only really gives you a taste of what it has to offer as you lose the experience of seeing events happen and places appear in different orders (or not at all) depending on your own decisions. It’s still much better than never playing the game at all, but it’s still not quite the same.