Premature Evaluation: Ghost of a Tale

Every Monday, Brendan scurries through the undergrowth of the great early access fields. This week, he gets paws-on with rodent adventure Ghost of a Tale [official site].

Let’s just pick up all our jaws from the floor first. I mean, look at this game. Look at it. From the Gormenghast-style dungeons to the cute, gormless expression on protagonist Tilo’s mousey face, there is a beauty to this five-person project that many bigger studios could not hope to replicate. What do you expect when the head of the studio is a former Dreamworks animator? Yes, this world of mice and rats and spiders looks spectacular. I want us all to agree on that. Sadly, as a game, it is also perilously old-fashioned.

Ghost of a Tale is set in a Redwall-ish universe of anthropomorphic animals. The introduction tells of a great war with a villainous green flame, which was only overcome when the rats fought back. Now, however, you are at the mercy of your fellow rodents. Tilo is a lute-playing mouse who finds himself in jail for “sedition”. The suggestion is that he’s been playing songs that the king didn’t like. He’s also been separated from his fair lady-mouse and has no idea where she has been taken. But upon waking up in your cell you find a note from a mysterious stranger and a key to the door hidden underneath your bread.

It’s a very Elder Scrolls introduction to a game that is not at all like Elder Scrolls. Soon, you are sprinting down the jail’s dank stone hallways, avoiding the rat guards by sneaking past them in stealth mode. All you do here is hold down a trigger on the gamepad to creep silently. A small box slowly fills up with red whenever a guard can sense you and you have to freeze to make the box “drain” again. If they spot Tilo, you get the exclam treatment (!) and the rat will come stomping toward you.

Thankfully, Tilo has one of the most satisfying sprint animations in videogames history. He gets down on all fours and scampers away like the speedy little pest he is. Often, you can just duck into a barrel, cupboard or chest – hiding spots scattered around the world. But sometimes guards will simply forget about you if you run far enough. I once escaped from two miffed rats and bolted into a tunnel that only Tilo could fit down, and it became clear to me that the game had absolutely nailed what it is to be a clawless, helpless animal running away from danger. Even Tilo’s idle animation looks timid. He peeps around nervously, arms up, nose twitching.

You can also distract guards by throwing bottles or sticks, and lure them into puddles of goo where they’ll slip and knock themselves out for a few seconds. Some hallways and passages have rooms with lever-operated doors, allowing you to entice your enemies inside, run past their legs and pull the lever, trapping them inside. If they do catch up to you, they’ll lop huge chunks of health off you with a mere swipe of their spears, or grab you up into their claws so that you have to wiggle your control stick and wrestle out of their grip. The emphasis here is definitely on evasion.

This is pretty much what the game is made of. There are plenty of characters to meet as you emerge from your cell – thieving mice, a blacksmith rat, a pirate frog, your mysterious aide. And the dialogue is surprisingly funny. It’s a tale with a light heart and the jokes of all your fellow prisoners and anthro-freaks do much to keep you invested in the world. You meet two mice later who charge you with the task of getting them out of the castle. And while they ask for your help they also take great pleasure in insulting you, calling you “boring” in every way they can think of. By the time they got to “banal” I was definitely smiling.

It’s the kind of adventure journalists will be falling over themselves to call “charming”. Not me. I hate that word. It makes me think of rich tourists who visit the favelas of Rio and call everything “quaint”. (Oh, how charming, dear! Look at the mice! Wonderful). But I can definitely see the appeal of its cutesiness, and the contrast between its cast of lovable rascals and the dark environment only makes you more curious about what is down the next gloomy hallway.

This curiousity is rewarded when you start to find all the secret passageways that lead back to previous areas. These moments makes it feel strangely like Dark Souls, you know, if Dark Souls fell into a vat of children’s books and came out mutated and giddy. Obviously, there’s no combat as such, and death is handled by simply loading your last save point, which sees you return to the last hiding spot in which you had the presence of mind to save (you can only save while hidden in these spots).

It has a lot going for it. The looks, the world design, the dialogue. It’s such a pity then that the actual playing of it is so… fusty. When you finally emerge from the jail and start to explore the castle proper, you find that every character, no matter how quaint they are, basically wants you to do their shopping for them. A huge list of quests will accrue in your pause menu and every one of them – without exception – is about collecting items and delivering them to whoever. These missions often demand that you go back to previous areas too. You end up evading the same guards in the same patterns over and over again. All for the sake of gathering beetles, or finding release papers, or picking up bits of some costume (although to be fair to the costumes, they are bloody adorable – eye patches, little boots, whole clunky suits of armour).

There are bits of story that stand out among all this to-ing and fro-ing. The moment you discover a legendary pirate in a dark cell almost makes it worth going back into the jail from which you originally escaped. But the resultant quest – searching high and low for the pieces of his uniform – take all the pleasure out of proceeding through such a gorgeous environment. For all its beauty, the game really enjoys saddling you with fetch quests and “collect 12 of X” missions – game design that would not be out of place in an Nintendo 64 platformer.

I think that’s my main gripe. Partly, this density of dull activities is due to there being only a small selection of areas available (only about 25% of the world can be explored so far, the developers say). But it is still disappointing to see the potential of such a beautiful, crumbling world frittered away on things like “go and find me 3 mushrooms”.

Ghost of a Tale is at its best when it moves fast, introducing you to new characters and letting you explore the world unhindered. There was a moment when I moved from the jail to the castle’s courtyard, when I saw the blacksmith with a speech bubble and thought “oh excellent, there’ll be a little community here and I can go and talk to everyone”. No such luck. More guard-dodging was ahead. I only wish it had the confidence to extend its quiet moments, instead of making sure you always have a rat to avoid.

Because the real joy comes from just breathing in the place, the architecture, the shortcuts, the secrets. The fact that it has a day and night cycle, where the other characters go to sleep and you have to return to them when they’re awake to give them their shopping, is also old-fashioned. But, crucially, this is old-fashioned in the lovable way, evoking the days and nights of Zelda or Pokemon and granting the castle a life of its own. That’s the thing that has me conflicted about this game. I really want to see the other 75% of this world – its walls, its villages, its forests – I just don’t want to spend all my time there collecting mushrooms.

Ghost of a Tale is available on Steam for £14.99/$17.99. These impressions were based on build 1244430

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21 Comments

  1. SMGreer says:

    Can totally understand the complaint regarding the fetch quests but I think a combination of the quality writing and wonderful world design kept me engaged despite the back and forth. Opening up shortcuts and things on subsequent trips certainly injected a lot of joy into it.

    Don’t know how the rest of the game will play out but I suspect given where this portion ends that subsequent sections of the game will rely on more interesting enemies to evade, whilst continuing to expand the world. So as long as those aspects continue to grow in interest I’ll have no trouble with some rather mundane quest design.

    Who knows though, perhaps some more interesting quests await anyway. The stealth could certainly lend itself to some more interesting objectives and goals. The way costumes are used certainly has promise.

  2. Okami says:

    I backed this game the minute I first heard about it and I’m really happy that the project is going so well. It’s an absurdly polished product, considering the small team of people. I really want to like it. I almost do. But. If you make a stealth game, it’s stealth mechanics should be better then the ones in that stealth level of Wind Walker. Sadly, this is not the case here.

    • Okami says:

      Wind Waker. The cell shaded Zelda game. Not Wind Walker.

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      UncleBAZINGA says:

      So why don’t you give this exact feedback to the dev(s) especially since this in Early Access? They’re very responsive over in the Steam Discussions as well as on the official site and they’re eager for any feedback. Just give it a try, I did it already several times and the response sounded very pleasing to me ^^

  3. w0bbl3r says:

    This review is pretty much bang on.
    I gave up playing pretty quickly when I saw the problems it has and the boring nature of the gameplay.
    BUT…… I didn’t give up and refund it, or uninstall it and doom it to my “hidden” tab in steam.
    I gave up and now I’m waiting. Because I expect it will be worth it in a few months time.

  4. BorgiaCamarones says:

    I traveled here from 1992 to say this: it is walls, it is villages, it is forests

  5. Alien426 says:

    Okay, everybody always brings up Redwall. Which is fine, since it was (probably) the first to do this kind of thing. BUT you should really also check out the Mouse Guard comics by David Petersen (http://www.mouseguard.net)!

    • Jekhar says:

      I’ll add another hearty Mouse Guard recommendation!

    • NonCavemanDan says:

      I’ll add a Deptford Mice Trilogy by Robin Jarvis nod towards Ghost of a Tale as the intro has a clear supernatural element that I’m waiting to have explored in the final game (something both Redwall and Mouse Guard tended to steer away from).

  6. kermat says:

    it’s walls, it’s villages, it’s forests
    Its.

  7. Jaykera says:

    Spot on premature evaluation.

    Level design impresses me. It’s sometimes very Bloodbornesque.

    Ennemies are just annoying. I think dealing with them needs to be improved by raising stealth speed and lowering their ability to detect us to speed up the pace.

    I wich I could explore more freely, especially if I have a lot of fetch quest to do.

    • pepperfez says:

      On the fetch quests: Are they actual N64-ish “find X number of things that are hidden” or MMO-ish “go bop things until X number of other things pop out”?

  8. DanMan says:

    Mr. Lemmiwinks!! It’s you!

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    UncleBAZINGA says:

    A good review! While I agree with the most things you say about the game I have to say that I love that GoaT is old-fashioned in terms of gameplay. Including the quests because even though they’re basically just from the ‘Deliver A -> B’ sort, I yet still had fun doing them. The characters are just so lovely designed and the writing of what they have to say is very entertaining. They react on your answers, if you speak to them by night or by day and partly depending on which costume you’re wearing.

    The whole thing reminds me of good ol’ 3D Zelda games like OoT or TP and I think that’s exactly why I love it!

  10. somersault says:

    Love the game, its story and its world. Super sleek style and animation. However fetch quests are slightly boring, hopefully it’ll be some more interesting things in the full game. Also some jumping issues(specifically the courtyard jump puzzle) that was really tedious due to the game being fickle and the controls not really precise.

    Really happy I helped crowdfund it though, looking forward to see the full game and future ventures for the studio!