To be honest, I hadn’t heard much of Ghost of a Tale until very recently. The success of its Indiegogo campaign shouldn’t be overlooked, and we did interview the creative team some time ago. Since then, I’ve seen very little, and the game had almost slipped my mind entirely. As a result, I’m almost proud of the fact that, in recent memory, this is one of the few games that I’ve been able to go into completely blind, and raise a fair amount of objectivity. In a world of supersaturation of information, it’s actually refreshing.
Ghost of a Tale is the story of an anthropomorphic world in which animals rule. Something only called the Green Flame has decimated the world and left the Rats in charge as the Rats were the ones to successfully beat back the undead army raised by the Flame. Rats, true to their nature, ended up being dicks to mice and cast them into exile and kicked them out of positions of power. The game starts hundreds of years later, when a bard mouse by the name of Tilo gets separated from his wife and thrown into prison. Using cunning, stealth and good timing, you must navigate Tilo out of the prison and towards wherever his wife is being held.
I was blown away by how beautiful the character designs of Tilo and the guards look, which, had I looked into the history of the game, I would have been prepared for. The one man development team, Seith, has previously worked for Dreamworks and Universal as animation director and holds an impressive resume under his belt. Your mouse-hero is impeccable down to the whisker and really gives a strong Redwall feeling (which is what he was aiming for). The idling animations, where Tilo sniffs about fretfully or darts his eyes to check for danger, are spot on, and I even enjoy how it looks when he’s clutching a stick or a bottle in his paw. He creeps along on two feet when acting in stealth mode but drops to all fours to sprint when the going gets tough. For many, the way the game looks might be worth the price of admission alone.
The prison is, however, quite dark. I mean, of course it is: it’s a prison. But the shadows can sometimes be a bit too heavy, especially when you’re trying to navigate unfamiliar, new areas and guard rats are around every corner. Part of the prison is outside, which gives a pretty dynamic shift in lighting and mood, although you are still in a prison. Regardless, players would do well to adjust the room temperature before diving into the adventure. Also, darkening where you play really adds to the atmosphere of the attempted jailbreak of our little mousey hero. You’ll spend equal amounts of time inside and out, and the shifting of time in game can seriously affect how well you can spot the right places to step and not. So much so that you will, on occasion, find beds and be able to sleep with the express intent of altering the light outside to where you would benefit most.
Gameplay-wise, Ghost of a Tale seems to rely on what works best for our protagonist, which is stealth. You really have no combat skills to speak of, and the best you can hope for at any instance is to get the drop on a rat and hit them with something to temporarily knock them out. Therefore, most of the game is spent creeping along the corridors and hallways of the prison. When the Rats can hear you, you’ll see a diamond icon appear that slowly or quickly fills with red depending on how aware they are of you. Walking silently may prevent the gauge from filling, while sprinting basically guarantees an instant notice. Should you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, don’t despair; Tilo can duck into any number of containers and disappear from view (and from smell or sound, apparently). Hiding is also essential to saving, as you can only really save when you’ve disappeared from view or when you finish a quest.
The hiding mechanic is simultaneously the best and worst thing about Ghost of a Tale. On the one hand, Tilo is quite good at fitting into chests and dressers, at which point your view becomes obscured because, well, you’re peeking out from between doors or beneath a lid. It’s great in the way it handles the effect of sacrificing your perspective in order to preserve your safety. On the other hand, Tilo can also hide in grain basins, which are giant, shallow, open-topped barrels. By shallow, I mean his head and shoulders are very, very clearly visible. This is further cemented by the fact that your view isn’t changed and you can look around clearly but can still save, as this is a safe area. Seriously? The mouse would be better disguised if he dived under a table and yet this is supposed to be camouflaged enough that the guards simply don’t see you or simply don’t care. “Oh, Tilo thinks he’s hiding again. Poor, dumb bastard. I’ll humor him and pretend he isn’t there. I’ll just beat the holy hell out of him later; it’s almost the end of my shift.” The only thing better is when I was being chased by a guard, I shut the door in his face, and that was it. It’s like dropping stars on GTA sometimes, and it can be a comedic reprieve from the heaviness of the game.
Additionally, the story, as it is right now, is unfolding at a simultaneously slow and breakneck pace. The main saga, the one about your missing wife and the whole “Rats rule everything” is taken care of pretty quickly, if you talk to the right NPCs. Basically, she’s in another prison and you may or may not be able to escape and find her. However, the key word is the “right” NPCs. One wants to extort you for cash to answer. Another doesn’t actually know but suggests that you might do well to join them in order to get answers. Yet a third just tells you straight out and encourages you to help him so he can help you. Help, as you may have guessed, comes in the form of fetch quests, and there’s no limit to the number of errands you end up being tasked with. Some are personal, like finding the nine roses throughout the prison that remind you of your wife. Some are to build trust or scratch a back, like getting together enough coins to have a map of the prison. But some are trivial to the point of nonsense. I got sent on a quest to get a bug out of a hutch that was roughly six feet away from the quest-giver. Finishing that “quest” unlocked a different quest because I accidentally let all the bugs fly away. When you attach quests to every single movement you make in the game, it starts to lose meaning.
After a while, you stop being worried about the guards as well. As long as you have a bit of health, you have the ability to sprint, and your natural walking speed matches the guards and your stamina refills relatively quickly. They hit like trucks, but only if they connect. Guards do have the good sense to give up after you’ve created enough space between them, but several just seem to be impossibly bad at their job. You fall into a routine of running into a new area, grabbing things as fast as you can, doing a lap around the vicinity to get the guard to lose interest or to at least get him out of the way, then grab more stuff and continue until you’ve looted everything. It can get a little intense when you run into a dead end or the edge of a precipice, but you’re only as screwed as you let yourself become. If you can create four seconds to open the menu and eat a carrot, you’re set. Refill your health/stamina, run away and live to loot another day. And yes, you need those four seconds, because the game doesn’t stop when you check your inventory. I found that out the hard way when I tried to grab an apple and ate a halberd instead.
One really positive thing is that the development is quite active. Since I started my playing of Ghost of a Tale, I’ve already received an update that made the game smoother and addressed a couple minor bugs encountered. Rather than expanding the game at a fast but unstable rate, Seith seems pretty focused on making the game enjoyable and totally playable before continuing onto new areas and characters. You can see a lot of activity within their Steam forum, as well as multiple builds released within the last six months. Early Access tends to be incredibly hit or miss with customer satisfaction, and I’m very pleased with how much Ghost of a Tale listens to community feedback and addresses concerns and bugs.
As it stands now, Ghost of a Tale is incredibly promising and has shown they are rewarding the folk who’ve backed the game from day One as well as early adopters. It has heart and soul, and I can’t get over how beautiful everything looks. While it may not necessarily be the game I would sit down and play every night, it’s got a beautiful “cold weekend” appeal that I would shut myself in for a couple days and explore everything there is to see and know about the world. One amazing note is the game is currently touted as being about a third complete, as in we are seeing less than half of what the creators hope to ultimately produce. If that’s true, then Ghost of a Tale could become a force to be reckoned with and remind everyone that yes, sometimes crowdfunding delivers beyond your wildest dreams. I highly encourage everyone to keep an eye on this one, and we here at TICGN will be sure to bring you a more detailed review once Tilo is ready for the whole world to see.