I first played Ghost of a Tale back in 2016 when it came into Early Access, but after about 30 minutes, I put the game down, and didn’t pick it up until after it launched on March 13th. Those first few minutes had me excited, and I didn’t want to ruin the full experience.
I’ve now sunk a considerable amount of time into Ghost of a Tale (though I’ve still got a slew of side quests to complete and secrets to find!) and, while there are a few rough edges and design choices people might consider antiquated, the experience and world created in this game are nothing short of magical.
Title: Ghost of a Tale
Game Version: Final
Review Copy: Personal Purchase
Interface: Gamepad / Keyboard & Mouse
Available on PC via Steam, GOG and Humble Store. Coming to Xbox One and PS4
Every review I’ve seen of the game has started things off by talking about how amazing Ghost of a Tale‘s graphics are (SeithCG is ex-Pixar, so this isn’t exactly surprising), so I won’t spend much time on this: Yes, the game looks fantastic.
What I’m surprised by is how little other reviewers have praised the game’s lore and story, which I think is phenomenal both in content and communication. You are Tilo, a mouse bard jailed for crimes against the crown (probably just singing a bawdy song, see below). You’ve been separated from your wife Meera, and your main quests is to find her and escape the prison of Dwindling Heights. Tilo is immediately sympathetic, and has some of, if not the best character animations in gaming. I immediately felt invested in seeing his story though.
Of course, it isn’t as easy as sneaking down a corridor and finding your mouse-wife in another cell. No, you’ll have to work to find your wife, and you’ll meet a vast cast of character who all want something in return for helping you. It’s a fantastic cast of characters: there’s the pair of mouse thieves who need you to collect supplies for their impending escape (they’ll teach you the tricks of the trade in return). There’s a rat sentry who clearly knows more than he’s letting on (and has a curious connection to mouse-kind). The lord and warden of the prison is all too willing to help you should you help him with his spider problem (and the potential criminal cadre in the castle). And of course, there’s the Old Pirate Frog.
What I love most about this story that unfolds in Ghost of a Tale is that it is told in a style similar to Dark Souls, but with less of a massive infatuation with cryptic and near undecipherable plots. You’re never really told things directly as a player, as the NPC’s you run into assume Tilo know things about the world he’s part of. Where Dark Souls would leave it to you, the player, to try and piece together some sort of backstory, Ghost of Tale offers you numerous footnotes, which you are free to read or ignore, but which do a spectacular job of world building.
The gameplay in Ghost of a Tale focuses heavily on stealth. Tilo is a small mouse, and by no means a warrior, so you cannot fight the enemies you meet directly. Instead you’ll have to rely on running from hiding spot to hiding spot, breaking line of sight, using the environment to your advantage, or in the most dire of situations, chucking a glass bottle at a rats face. This can feel very finicky at times, and sometimes guards will spot you when you think they shouldn’t be able to, or might pursue you for what feels like an eternity, but I found that if I took things slow, watched for patterns and was careful about timing, things never felt unfair.
One major problem with Ghost of a Tale is the fact that these stealth mechanic offers no real growth through the game. Don’t misunderstand me; you still have plenty of opportunities to level up, learn new abilities (such as being able to recover from falls quickly, or sense footsteps), and progress as a character, but the skills that you learn in the first hour or so are pretty much the exact same skills that you’ll be using through the whole game. In many ways this is made more noticeable by the game’s quests.
Most of your progression, as a character and as a narrative, is done though quests. These quests are given to you by NPC’s full of character, and have wonderful stories tied to them, but ultimately have very little variety. Almost all the quests you accept are fetch or “shopping list” quests: Go fetch this antidote. Collect these pieces of armor. Gather these supplies for this mouse. I think in another game this could have become incredibly dull, but the saving grace for Ghost of a Tale is that these quests are communicated and executed flawlessly.
There are no quest markers to aim for, or golden breadcrumbs to follow to the rat you need to talk to. No, Ghost of a Tale is old school. You’re told things like “The rat on the west rampart might have a note to help you find X” and that’s it. You have to figure out where the west rampart is, the best way to get there, which rat it is, and how to get what you need from him. It’s refreshingly challenging in it’s own way, and highlights Ghost of a Tale’s brilliant approach to difficulty.
Difficulty in Ghost of a Tale is, to a large degree, self determined: There’s no screen at the beginning where you select an easy, normal or hard setting. Instead, you can tailor your adventure to your own needs and desires through a number of different interactions and mechanics. Rolo the Blacksmith is one of the first you’ll run into. This friendly rat knows the goings on around the keep, and is all to happy to give you that information…for a price.
You’ll find gold florins here and there throughout the game, which you can trade with him for maps of different areas, hints about the locations or use of different items, or the hiding places of certain pieces of the game’s different outfits. You’re unlikely to have enough florins to buy every piece of information, particularly if you’re upgrading certain other things, so you’ll need to choose what is most valuable to you.
You should probably buy the maps though. The Dwindling Heights Keep is a sprawling labyrinth, full of secret tunnels, passageways and rafters you can find and unlock in a very Dark Souls-esq map design. You’ll be backtracking through old areas frequently and finding way to access new areas, from the leech-filled sewers to the catacombs full of ancient heroes, and it can be confusing to keep track of where everything and everybody is. It does however, make the entire world feel very alive and very real, and you’ll feel yourself getting lost in this world, something that I love to experience in games
Your outfits are the other major way you are able to determine the difficulty of the game, or more specifically, what kind of difficulty you’ll have to deal with. There are around a half a dozen different outfits you can find, and a handful of other single items of clothing. Each piece of clothing gives you a mechanical advantages and disadvantages, making you resistant to certain types of damage, making you sprint faster or regain your stamina more quickly. The best part of this is that the benefits are really helpful, but you cannot wear everything at once (you cannot change clothes while anyone is watching you either!). For example, the clothes from the Thieves Outfit makes you much more silent while running about, making you nigh undetectable to the guards and creatures, but offer very little protection should you make a mistake. However, the Guards Outfit (my personal favorite) makes stealth a null-point, as the rats of the keep will simply assume you are a very short new recruit and are happy to let you run about and talk with them. I say run, but it’d be more correct to say waddle, since the price for this disguise is a huge drop in your mobility, and making you unable to jump at all.
These systems are a fantastic example of how to handle difficulty in an engaging and interesting way, and is one of the best parts of Ghost of a Tale.
I did run into a number of graphical bugs and glitches while playing Ghost of a Tale, but nothing game-breaking, just a a couple rough edges, which are a small price to pay for such a wonderful experience.
I think Ghost of aTale is a triumph; a gorgeous, nostalgic adventure in a richly realized world that oozes with the love the developer poured into it. It feels very old school, which I loved, but I’m sure some people won’t be enamored by. I doesn’t make any efforts to help guide you, just drops you in a world and expects you to sink or swim based on your own wits and cunning. There’s no fast travel, just shortcuts you’ll have to figure out how to use. There are no quest markers or bread crumb paths to follow, but there are plenty of descriptions and dialogue to send you off in the right direction. Some people not paying attention to the story or character might find the game’s mechanics a bit stale or old fashioned on there own. I was, however, completely enchanted by the world that’s been constructed, and would adore the chance to explore it further.