Ghost of a Tale is a very densely packed Stealth/Fetchquest game. That may sound like a joke, but it really isn’t.
Ghost of a Tale stars Tilo, a mouse minstrel who has been unjustly imprisoned in the crumbling Dwindling Heights, a great fortress built over the tomb of the hero Dunlain, but which is today little more than a prison where rat soldiers who have screwed up one too many times are given jobs as punishment. One day, Tilo finds a key and a note hidden under a piece of bread delivered to his cell, entreating him to unlock his cell and sneak through the fortress meet with his anonymous benefactor on the top of the highest tower in the keep.
But Tilo is a tiny little mouse in a world full of rats, magpies, and other larger creatures. One of the first people he runs into, a frog, entreats him to murder a snoring guard, but Tilo refuses, on the grounds that he is no murderer – or indeed, a criminal at all.
And so the stage is set for a stealth game, as our cute little mouse protagonist scampers and sneaks his way around the world. This is a world akin to Redwall, where all of the people are anthropomorphic animals – but only slightly anthropomorphized. They walk on two legs, but Tilo will scamper on all fours when he runs, and they’re all designed to look rather like real animals.
It seems at first like the racism of Redwall is present as well – the rats are at first depicted as being rather mean, and the mice as good. But it quickly becomes clear that the rats are indeed the heroes of the setting, and that the mice betrayed them in ancient times to a terror known as the Green Flame. The mice you run into in the game are thieves, and it becomes clear when you read more about the world that a number of mice have been rebelling against the rats – and while their treatment as second-class citizens is perhaps unjust, a number of the rats seem to be sympathetic towards mice.
The game, thus, subverts the player’s expectations about a setting like this, and the game keeps doing so throughout. The whole game takes place in a very small area – a single fortress and a bit of surrounding wilderness – and there’s only about a dozen real characters in the game, but there is more to almost all of them than meets the eye. Thus, as you explore the keep and try to make your way to freedom and find your wife, you also learn more about the world and the people around you, and find that things are nowhere near as simple as they seemed. Everything you believed might be wrong, and your benefactor, Silas, warns you not to trust anyone – even him.
But Tilo is a kind creature, and the NPCs are so cute… how can you not want to help them out?
The weird thing about this game is that while it appears like it is a stealth game at first glance, it actually only is one for about the first quarter or third of the game – one of the first quests you get is a quest to sneak around the keep and gather pieces of guard armor to make yourself a disguise. Once you complete this disguise, weighed down in heavy, oversized rat armor, you pass yourself off as a runty new rat recruit who was supposed to be transferred in. At this point, it becomes possible to walk past and talk to every guard in the place, and the game goes from a stealth game to being focused on exploration and, ultimately, doing what amounts to fetch-quests for a number of NPCs.
What you enjoy about this game is probably not going to be the gameplay – sure, the stealth bit is decent enough, but the mechanics never really evolve because instead it focuses around disguising yourself to pass as various people to get others to help you out. The game is really mostly fetchquests and exploration, trying to find things for people who might help you escape from the prison or help to find your wife.
The real draw of this game is the writing. The fact that the whole place is pretty small means that a lot of what you’re doing is going back and forth, trying to find stuff or get people to give you stuff or convince them to do stuff, or just talking to people to learn more about the world. And the fact that the game world is so small means that, despite all of the backtracking, you don’t actually spend all that long between plot points – the game is pretty dense, and you’ll frequently complete tasks and go turn them in to get new fun bits of dialogue with people. The conversations are often funny, but can deliver emotionally powerful exposition; the hidden depths of characters are nice to see, and you end up caring about the core cast of characters because there are so few of them and you get fond of them by talking with them over time. From the rascally Gusto and Fatale, mouse thieves extraordinare who make you write a ballad for them, to Silas, your mysterious benefactor with ulterior motives, to the blacksmith Rolo, who seems to always be willing to sell you advice for a bit of coin, they’re a pretty likeable bunch, and Tilo’s own polite, kind character shines through and makes the player very much want to help him find his wife and escape from this place.
The game’s overall presentation is also very nice – the UI is generally attractive, and the character models are high quality and very detailed. The way Tilo stomps around in armor that is too heavy for him, tiptoes around while sneaking, scampers around while running, or awkwardly clambers into hiding places (where you can not only hide out from guards, but also save your game), is all quite fun to see. The art is quite good overall, and the characters are very expressive in some ways. Alas, the game is very much an indie project, which means that some of the moments which would have been more difficult to animate are instead simply given out to the player via a brief bit of emoting text, which is a little bit of a letdown – some of those moments would have been really powerful to see, but unfortunately, the game doesn’t let you, leaving them to your imagination.
There is, I think, a certain sort of person who is apt to be very charmed by this game – they will find the characters fun, the art style nice to look at, the writing very engaging and witty, and the characters will grow on them and make them care about their well-being.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of people who will simply not like this game – if you’re looking for a stealth game, this game is only briefly that, and overall, most of the gameplay is very basic and consists of simple exploration and doing what amounts to fetchquests for people.
For me, personally, I fall into the former camp – the writing and characters made this game work for me, and I feel like this was an indie project which chose to use its small scope to its advantage, creating a tightly wound plot with a handful of characters that the game made you care about and want to succeed.