At some point when the Earth was new and God was a boy, all the way back in late 2016 when the idea of a global pandemic was a subject for the history books as something that only happened after world wars and would never ever happen again, I did an Early Access video review of Ghost of a Tale.
The game is a 3rd-person stealthy-sneaky, item-collecting, puzzle solving game where you play as Tilo the mouse minstrel in a world full of anthropomorphic animals. It’s also a game I had very clear memories of being developed by a solo dev, Lionel “Seith” Gallat, something which still absolutely blows my mind given the standard of the game.
When I previously played it, about maybe one quarter of the game’s full content had been released but I enjoyed it enough and gave it a moderately tentative recommendation for those who sought out story-focused games, while also deriding its stealth mechanics as overly basic. However, I still fully intended to return to it at some point, because I did enjoy it myself for what it was.
As far as I understand the full version of the game released in 2018 but it wasn’t until last year in the midst of said pandemic that I dove back in and gave the full game another try. So, I figured I’d give an updated and full review of the game in its complete state.
It’s a thought I’ve had before but it surprises me that there not more games that really lean more heavily on anthropomorphised animals. It feels like there’s a huge well of possibilities there, both in terms of creativity but then also in terms of tapping into nostalgia. Games like Ghost of a Tale and Armello conjure up images of classic stories like Narnia or Redwall and I think it’s pretty clear that in Ghost of a Tale they might actually be trying to match that tone as well. For the most part everything is fairly upbeat and positive, the characters are a bit goofy and don’t take things too seriously and the primary feeling is one of “cute mouse on an adventure”. However, also like the books of Narnia and Redwall (the latter I am ashamed to admit I am not extremely familiar with) it’s not afraid to dip into darker subject matter. It touches on death, corruption, loss, betrayal, desperation and final battles against all odds, all the usual good stuff, but does it in that way which makes you think you’d probably happily let your kids play it too.
The writing of the game is generally extremely good, the world and characters are both absorbing and just fundamentally believable. Tilo’s first mission is to try and escape from the prison where he is held and to try and find and reunite with his wife, and in doing so he is drawn into broader schemes and conspiracies within the castle. With a small roster of characters to interact with he gradually will work out not only more about his own past but learn about the lore of the world, the history of the characters themselves, and work towards even protecting the world itself from the evil corruption of the Green Flame.
There’s some wonderful lore building here as well, where there’s a real sense of history in the design of the world and its characters. It has that sensation of being a living world, filled with real events and people, albeit it’s also one that is somehow past its prime and where darkness is lurking on the fringes.
The narrative is also deeper than it initially makes out to be as well, which was a great pleasure to discover. When you first escape, you first have to deal with the rat wardens and soldiers who guard the prison and the castle. Compared to tiny Tilo, the rats are hulking and monstrous and genuinely intimidating. They thud around with their metallic armour and halberds, growling away to themselves. You also learn that mice in general are being oppressed and browbeaten across the land by a cruel and uncaring rat government. So, it paints this seemingly quite simplistic picture of rats being these uncaring and vicious tyrants, with the mice being the uppity and daring freedom fighters nipping at their heels.
However, as time goes on it becomes clear that it is not quite as simple as that. For all that they are aggressive and cruel, the rats are the only ones actually trying to forge some semblance of order and stability on the animal Kingdoms while everyone else seems happy to let it collapse, and the mice in general seem to have a bad habit of just wanting to lark around, steal everything that isn’t nailed down and avoid any responsibility or real attempts at fixing the world. Essentially there’s a depth here that makes it clear that the races are not just one-dimensional caricatures, and this is also then reflected in the characters you meet.
It’s not all clever and highfalutin though either, the game has a genuinely great sense of comedy too and actually made me laugh more than once. This all really comes together to show off the writing chops on display here. The game knows when to be chill, when to get serious and when to just have a good time.
On top of this the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game is absolutely stellar. Tilo himself is super cute and the various locales are all suitably grand if dilapidated. The graphical fidelity is one of the major reasons it blows my mind that this project had such a tiny dev team, I simply cannot believe the level of the visuals on display. I also just have to put a small aside here to mention my absolute hatred of the spiders in the game, fuckers freak me RIGHT out. Admittedly some of the issues of clipping I mention in my video are still very much prevalent, but I guess you can’t have everything…
The gameplay is primarily stealth and “puzzle” focused. Tilo is very obviously not a fighter, at the very least being physically much smaller than just about anyone he meets, and so it makes it clear that really your only recourse is to get by on cunning and guile. You can knock out unaware guards with bottles, but even then they get back up after a while, so for the most part you’re going to be sneakily scurrying hither and thither, like a good mouse should.
The downside to this is that the stealth is kind of not very good. Sneaking past guards and so-on tends to work quite well, and there’s this sense that because Tilo is so much smaller he has the options to find unique routes past their patrols. The downside then comes in a few main ways. First is that the guard’s detection of you, reliant upon line-of-sight and hearing, will always increase when you are moving (regardless of how stealthily) and will only decrease when you are standing still. So rather than sneaking around, you can just as easily sprint-and-stop, sprint-and-stop repeatedly for the same effect. It’s also extremely easy to just not worry about the stealth at all, and it feels perfectly possible to just sprint from one corner of the map to the other, past every guard, without really being in any danger. Of course, this also is useful for when you are actually trying to use stealth and cock it up in that it tends to be pretty easy to escape and hide.
The other major issue is caused by one of the major facets of the game: the disguise system. Throughout the game you will collect different articles of clothing in order to get full sets of gear to masquerade as a mouse Ranger, a Pirate and so-on. The introduction to this, and the very first set you will complete, is the Rat Guard set. This allows you to masquerade as a guard and just walk around the place without any stealth whatsoever, totally invalidating the need for the stealth elements in the first place. Admittedly you move much slower with the guard armour on, but this is frustrating in a different way. The slow movement speed with the armour is not enough of a impediment to prevent you from using it. In general it’s still quicker to plod past guards than having to sneak past them. So now you have the issue that not only is the stealth ruined, but because you’re also wearing the armour all the time you basically have to walk everywhere, which slows down the pace of the game to a crawl (alternatively you can go through more costume changes than a one-man production of A Midsummer’s Nights Dream).
I will say, in its favour, that I enjoyed the costume aspect of the game. I thought that was quite cool in the way it would later-on open up new paths. For example, the same rat guard set allows you to go and speak to a few of the rat characters, which is nice.
Actually, the whole setting relies on this and ticks more than a few boxes for metroidvania, with you gradually exploring further out from the starting cell block and finding more paths and routes which all circle back to the same courtyards. I said in my video that I was hopeful that the game would open up more once you had got past the castle, and unfortunately it does not. However, while that is arguably a little disappointing given that it means there’s so much of the world that we don’t see, it does fit the more constrained nature of the story. Tilo gets drawn into bigger conspiracies because of his quest to find his wife, but throughout it all, that remains his main goal so perhaps if the game had allowed for broader questing it might have ruined that tight focus.
The other thing it probably would have ruined is that the central mechanic by which the game tells its story and has you explore the world and meet characters is via fetch quests. Fetch quests, fetch quest and more bloody fetch quests, all day, every day. Each character you meet will you give you a few fetch quests so that they will help you find your wife and these fetch quests inevitably devolve into multiple branching fetch quests. It’s here that the relatively small size of the world probably is necessary because you have to backtrack across every single location about a billion times before you’ve finally collected everything from every nook and cranny.
One final note I have is about the music of the game. The actual moment-by-moment music is generally fine, but one very minor mechanic in the game has Tilo using his minstrel abilities to sing songs for bonus experience. This was… Kind of weird… Given Tilo’s occupation as a minstrel I actually got the impression this was maybe originally supposed to be a much more important mechanic but was cut down when it proved too difficult to implement. It’s also just kind of weird in that the songs are all, largely, not particularly great… They all vary from sea shanties to courtly ballads, but it’s super odd that the game chooses to display the lyrics for them but then only plays the instrumental music. That feels like a missed trick to me.
All of this is to say the really, my genius is almost painful sometimes. I said in my video early access review that if stealth mechanics and gameplay were what you were after then Ghost of a Tale would not be your cup of tea due to how easily exploitable they are. However, if you’re into narrative and story then I’d highly recommend Ghost of a Tale because here the plot and characters absolutely carry the experience. Regardless of how uninspired the mechanics are, it really was simply a pleasure exploring and getting immersed into the world of Redwa– I mean Ghost of a Tale.