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