Ghost of a Tale Review
Good things come in small, disguised, hard-to-open packages
It’s getting harder and harder for indie games to stand out from the pack, but the outlook is rosier for projects that have already been crowd-funded before release. Ghost of a Tale was funded back in 2013, and while it took a little longer than expected to complete, it’s a remarkable feat given that it was primarily made by just one developer. Ghost of a Tale is a mixture of a few different genre types and styles—role-playing, stealth, adventure, and treasure hunt—that all mesh fairly well together. The result is a tight package that competes above its weight class, much like the small hero at the heart of the adventure.
Tilo will have to get his feet wet
You play as a mouse, Tilo, who has been mysteriously imprisoned in Dwindling Heights Keep after playing a song for a Baron. Tilo is a minstrel who carries a lute everywhere, and his wife, who performed alongside him, is missing. Fortunately somebody in the Keep has placed a key under some food, letting our hero escape his cell and set off to find answers.
The world outside Tilo’s cell is dangerous. Large rats patrol the halls and courtyards, seeking to kill any escapees. And so you’ll need to be careful as you scuttle about under the flickering lights. But mice are good at hiding, and objects like barrels and chests will keep Tilo safe—and act as save points—should the guards pursue. Still it’s best to avoid their gaze, using short bursts of speed to move between cover.
Stealth is an important part of the game and it works okay, although basic in its design. Sticks can be used to distract and bottles will temporarily knock guards unconscious if they have no helmet. There’s no caution state, so you’re either being chased or not. There are a few oddities with stealth, like guards following you for a long time or being attacked instantly when moving near sleeping rats. Being detected or attacked is not so bad though as you can outrun everyone and hide easily. Worst case scenario you get stuck in a corner and run out of stamina, in which case the rat guards will poke you with a poleaxe until you die.
If stealth doesn't work out, Tilo can always take up drinking
While the overall goal is to find Tilo's wife, the way out of the Keep is sealed and guarded. That means it’s time to do some quests for side characters. A few of the big rats are friendly, such as the blacksmith who sells maps of the region. Two thieving mice might be of use, if they can be trusted. And a heroic ghost under the Keep needs a hand. Each of them have tasks to complete: stealing items, finding mushrooms, opening passages, solving basic puzzles, clearing spiders with explosive pinecones, and more. There are no quest markers, and characters often refer ambiguously to places, so it can take some time to understand what is required.
The writing of the quests and story is rather good and it gets better as the adventure progresses, with some funny lines and interesting twists. The only letdown is that it doesn't properly conclude Tilo's primary goal. There is some back- story to uncover by finding collectibles, like roses that reveal more about Tilo’s family and why he was imprisoned. All of the dialogue between characters is text-based, due to the limited budget. Tilo will perform some music when talking to others, although this doesn’t have a powerful impact without a voice for the lyrics.
Rewards for completing quests vary greatly, but most help Tilo complete later missions. Levelling up will increase both stamina and health. The blacksmith can teach you how to spot traps and a hidden scientist can provide a candle helmet with an infinite light source. Some rewards will grant new skills, like the ability to see important objects or being able to carry more items.
It is easy to blend in with the right outfit
Completing missions is not just about being sneaky, hiding in plain sight works just as well thanks to a handful of disguises. The back half of the game requires Tilo to find many pieces of clothing; acquiring a full set will solve quests, like convincing a frog prisoner that you are his pirate captain and, later, being granted an audience with a knowledgeable Magpie. None of the disguises are more useful than the suit of armor that lets you walk freely among the rat guards. This disguise reduces movement speed considerably, so is best equipped only when necessary. With heavy armor, you’ll be able to work for the Keep’s commander and finally explore all areas in the game.
The places in and around the Keep are not huge, but they are quite well put together and detailed. Tilo will explore sewers, crypts, forests, caves, and multiple levels of the Keep itself. Most of the areas are a good compressed size, except for the shore region which is large, messy, and comparatively empty. More importantly, there are many shortcuts, such as ladders or hidden doors. Many places require a key to open and, while this makes perfect sense, it gets annoying to open an area and find another locked door almost immediately.
Going back and forth between areas, either to talk to characters or collect items, takes up a large part of the 10-15 hour adventure, so it is good there are no loading screens. Forcefully exposing the world in this way actually makes it rather endearing as you learn all of the nooks and crannies, and you might end up sliding down high walls to cheekily reduce travel times further. Guards patrol constantly and a day-night cycle will cause some characters to move to different places. Spending so much time in these small regions makes it easier to respect the interlinked structure of Dwindling Heights more and more as the game progresses.
Some tasks need to be completed at night
But the backtracking gets excessive and could have been reduced with different quest design. One quest asks you to find mushrooms that only appear at night, and it required a few sweeps of dark wooded areas because the written hints weren't that helpful. A main quest has Tilo helping some prisoners that arrive by boat, but he has to walk between two places thrice in heavy armor. Even finding the disguises was rarely straightforward. With so much backtracking and disguise changing, the quests structure gets tedious on more than a few occasions.
At least Tilo looks great in all his disguises. His mousey animations are awesome, whether he is idling in the toxic water of the sewers or running across the battlements. Although most of the characters are rodents, the other creatures are well designed too. Aside from some level design bugs, the world looks good with some deep tessellation effects and neat dynamic lights. More visual distinction would have been handy for objects of interest, like keys on guards’ hips. In any case, the world Tilo explores is full of wonder and quite different from most other games.
Tilo is a master thief, sometimes
Ghost of a Tale is not going to pull you by the ears and show you where to go. Rather it throws players in a fairly tight world and provides quests that encourage them to traverse the interlinked areas. And in doing so, you’ll come to appreciate Dwindling Heights Keep and its surrounds even more, except for when there is some excessive backtracking and item searching. Tilo and his ratty adversaries are well animated and smartly designed. As an adventure game, it has all the right parts including an interesting story, funny dialogue, and a sense of wonder. It also manages to blend stealth and some lightweight RPG elements into a compelling package. Ghost of a Tale is a good adventure game and hopefully we get to see more of Tilo and his world, however small of a slice it may be.