I’ve written this paragraph a dozen different ways already. I’ve no clue how to kick off this preview. So I’ll just start by saying something I’ve said in every draft so far: Ghost of a Tale is bloody brilliant.
It’s often difficult to write about games in Early Access. Sometimes you’re not sure whether to include little digs at graphical glitches, asides about the control scheme not working, bitterness at unpolished sound or the existence of placeholder text and dialogue. Often it’s a matter of scale: sure, the first level is great, but what about the rest of it? Will it sustain my interest for longer play-sessions? Will I still care about the characters at the end of it? And, let’s not forget the really big, wooly-mammoth-in-the-room style question: will it ever, actually, get released?
So, when we do write about games in Early Access, we tend to be a little wary, a little cautious, a little standoff-ish about the product that we’re previewing. But, try as I may to remain level headed and staunchly pessimistic about it, I just can’t help but get excited about Ghost of a Tale.
“Try as I may to remain level headed and staunchly pessimistic about it, I just can’t help but get excited about Ghost of a Tale.”
Almost entirely the work of one man, SeithCG (otherwise known as Lionel Gallat), Ghost of a Tale is an action RPG stealth-based game where you play – wait for it – as a mouse! Not only that, but you’re a medieval-ish minstrel with a lute and a floppy hat and everything! See? I’m getting carried away already.
Gameplay-wise, Ghost of a Tale is (at least in the Early Access preview) heavily focused on stealth. Your little mousey minstrel, who goes by the name of Tilo, is being held captive in the rat-run prison under Dwindling Heights keep and, for starters, you’re going to have to help him escape. Unfortunately, rats are far larger and stronger than mice and poor little Tilo has no real way of fighting back. Instead, he must rely on a mixture of cunning, expert timing and various hidey-holes to make his way past his captors and explore the mysteries of Dwindling Heights.
Said hidey-holes take a number of forms, from barrels and baskets to cupboards and chests – fortunately, though, the chamber pots are too small for even Tilo to squeeze into. Stealth feels pretty similar to early Assassin’s Creed games: enemies have suspicion meters that fill depending on how much noise Tilo’s making and how much of his mousey behind they can see. When the meter hits the top, the guards will make a bee-line for you in an effort to escort you back to your cell. It’s here that Tilo’s dash comes into play. Dropping to all fours, Tilo displays a much faster turn of speed that you can use to escape line of sight and head for an out-of-the-way hiding place to stay in until the guards get bored and wander away. However, as in the Assassin’s Creed games, there’s almost always a clearly defined path of hiding spots so, while you might sometimes feel a bit nervous sneakily following a guard on his patrol route, most of the time you won’t be left without a barrel or chest to slink into before he spots you.
What’s slightly more Souls than Creed, though, is the stamina meter that you have to carefully balance when trying to evade capture. While he can run fast, Tilo can’t run for long. You’ve got to keep your eyes peeled and take the earliest opportunity to dart back into cover if you get spotted. Ghost of a Tale is quite obviously the product of numerous inspirations, Dark Souls and Assassin’s Creed not least amongst them. There’s a smattering of Metal Gear, hints of Legend of Zelda and the Elder Scrolls series (and not just because of the setting). Environment-wise too, though, there are obvious connections to works like Redwall and the Rats of NIMH, perhaps some sub-conscious Lord of the Rings, even, particularly where it pertains to the game’s backstory.
We’re told, in a sort-of prologue, about a calamitous entity that bestrode the world some centuries ago, almost wiping out all of the animal races and culminating in the banishment of mice for trying to bargain with the being, before being plunged into the far smaller scale of Tilo’s current worries: imprisoned, presumably because his wife, Merra, refused to sing a song for a rat baron. Unhappily, Merra is also missing and it’s with the aim of finding her in mind that Tilo begins his journey. In RPGs, story is king, and Ghost of a Tale does a bang up job of creating a believable, working world that is just as kind, careless, beautiful and terrifying as our own but not by throwing hundreds of pages of in-world books, journals and diary entries at us.
Instead of several thousand pages of verbose text, Ghost of a Tale offers you the chance to learn more about Tilo’s world by picking up footnotes throughout the superbly written dialogue; brief and tantalising item descriptions and the songs that Tilo can, under the right circumstances, be asked to perform by other NPCs. It’s a method of storytelling without really telling a story – it’s information that ingratiates itself into your consciousness and it’s all delivered with the perfect amount of saucy wit, lighthearted jocularity or tear-jerking brevity to have you sighing in appreciation every time you read something.
“In RPGs, story is king, and Ghost of a Tale does a bang up job of creating a believable, working world that is just as kind, careless, beautiful and terrifying as our own.”
While you don’t particularly get into the meat of Tilo’s personal story in the preview, you certainly begin to get a good handle on the world that he inhabits, on its various denizens and some of its rich history. One of the important things about the game that SeithCG has stated (in a recent post on the game’s website) is that people’s personal behaviours are not determined by their race. Rats aren’t naturally evil: if they attack Tilo it’s because he’s an escaped convict and they are, after all, prison guards. There are some rats who are friendly to Tilo and some who are indifferent. Likewise, there are other mice in Dwindling Heights (the preview lets you meet two very humorous examples) but you can’t count on their being friendly or trustworthy just because they’re mice.
As with almost all RPGs, Tilo can pick up a bunch of useful stuff around the place – food gives Tilo back a portion of his strength, keys open doors and secret rooms, various items help him get around a little easier: a candle and lantern light the way, bottles and sticks can be thrown to distract guards and grease can be used to make them fall over. There are also several collectibles that fill up books and backstory, maps and hints at puzzles, but easily the most influential piece of Tilo’s kit are the costumes.
Each costume is comprised of five pieces of clothing: a hat, a mask, a shirt a belt and some boots. As you explore, you’ll locate different pieces for each outfit and, once you’ve got them all, Tilo – minstrel as he is – will be able to wear them as cunning and, ultimately, wonderfully designed disguises, each with their own backstory. But there’s more to the costumes than just disguise. Each complete set, when worn, will impact Tilo’s attributes in some way: the thief set enables Tilo to run faster; the armour lets him walk around freely, unmolested by guards, etc… but that’s not all! Some costumes are actually required for quests, opening up new dialogue options or letting you access other areas in the keep. Finally, it’s just really rather cool to wander around Dwindling Heights dressed as a little mouse-pirate.
As far as quests go, this preview has a few appetite-whetters to get you started on Tilo’s journey and should keep you occupied for around five hours at least (the Steam page indicates that this represents about 30% of the game’s full content so we’ll be looking at a little over 15 hours play time in the final release). As you’d expect from an RPG, there’s the typical ‘main’ quest that you can just complete if you want a swift playthrough but there are also some important side-quests that, actually, have every bit as much content as the main one – and some seriously helpful rewards to boot.
It’s in Ghost of a Tale‘s side-quests where you get to meet more of the world’s NPCs and where you get to build on the game’s lore. Working with Gusto and Fatale – two failed thieves also kept as prisoners in the keep – will give you some more insight into mouse society, in particular the thieves guild and its legendary leader, and will also allow you to learn and upgrade your sneaky skills, such as lock-picking or reducing fall damage. You’ll also come into contact with a pirate frog but I won’t spoil any of that for you. There are collectathons, too, but, unlike most AAA titles where collecting feathers or runes or whatever else gives little more than a new trophy, Ghost of a Tale pays you out in game lore for your thorough exploration.
That being said, the quests are responsible for one of the game’s few downsides (at least in this Early Access preview). The focus on stealth in Ghost of a Tale makes the variety of quests pretty slim and, as a result, there seems to be an abundance of fetch-quests: the blacksmith wants you to find his hammer but, to get it, Gusto wants you to find his stash. You need to get into the sewers but, before you can go down there, you’ll need to find some spider venom. Want to cure Fatale’s insomnia? Off you go to fetch ingredients for a sleeping potion. On their own, they might not be so bad, but as Dwindling Heights is a fairly limited location (albeit with a lot going on inside it) you’ll be dragging your cute little tail back and forth from jail to courtyard to sewers and back again. Unlocking shortcuts and finding the armour costume makes this a little less arduous but, if you’re playing cautiously (or forgot which one the sprint button was), you’ll spend more time scurrying between hidey-holes and avoiding the guards than anything else. However, that’s a minor complaint about what is, actually, one of the better games I’ve played this year and, possibly, the best Early Access game I’ve ever come across.
“One of the things that makes Ghost of a Tale better than most is the fact that the developers are obviously actively engaged in improving it.”
One of the things that makes Ghost of a Tale better than most is the fact that the developers are obviously actively engaged in improving it. Regular updates chart the progress that the game has made and it’s obvious that Seith is listening to the community – both on the Steam boards and via the game’s own dedicated forum – as he works to make the game the best that it possibly can be. Regular twitter posts, too, show that tweaking is constantly going on – most recently to foliage and water effects, making an already amazing-looking game even better.
I’ve not really talked about the graphics or sound because I’m very aware that this is an Early Access game and that a lot of that stuff can change. However, even in Early Access Ghost of a Tale looks amazing. Admittedly, it doesn’t have boundary-pushing graphics á la Crysis (circa 2007), but for a one-man development team on a limited budget, Ghost of a Tale’s graphics – generated via the Unity engine, for those who care about such things – are pretty stunning.
Perhaps the thing that stands out the most, though, is the character design. Having come from DreamWorks animation – and worked on titles such as The Lorax and Despicable Me, Seith’s certainly no stranger to cutesy and expressive characters, but Tilo really takes the cake. Even his idle animations are a thing of beauty: the way he plays with his tail and ears are very cute but the face he makes when scratching his behind is borderline adorable. The guards have their own quirks, too, and feel more like a group of individuals rather than a homogenous mass of ‘enemies’ and the other characters each ooze personality and have recognisable identities outside of the standard NPC ‘person you talk to to get a quest’ banner.
Ghost of a Tale’s visual punch is, if anything, emphasised by the almost minimalist soundtrack; music occurs infrequently, typically tense and pounding when Tilo is being chased by a guard, or gentle and soothing during dialogue or rare cut-scenes. It’s a method that works well, letting the game’s visuals and sound effects build on the atmosphere. The effects, for the most part, are very effective – the only criticisim I can make being that they are, occasionally, too loud and that the little rumbling noise that accompanies dialogue text is, actually, pretty unnecessary (I’d prefer a squeak or two, if you’re asking). While we’re on the subject, Ghost of a Tale doesn’t actually have any recorded dialogue: it’s all delivered via text boxes – much like the majority of old-school JRPGs – and I, for one, have absolutely no problem with that.
Ghost of a Tale actually manages to feel pretty realistic, despite the fact that you’re playing as an anthropomorphic mouse minstrel, and the game does everything it possibly can to draw you in. Tilo’s is a world full of history, conflict and intrigue but what it, and it’s denizens, has in spades is character. For such a small space and such a short playtime, the preview does an excellent job of drawing you in to Seith’s universe and leaves you desperately craving more. When the text came up marking the end of the preview, I swear there was a little tear in my eye.