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Ghost of a Tale (PC) artwork

Ghost of a Tale (PC) review

"Another brick in the Redwall, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the jank."

So earlier I mentioned there were three games I got around the same time worth talking about. The second of these is Ghost of a tale.

Sometimes, as much fun as it is to shoot goons in the face or drive at light speed down impossible roads, you might find yourself looking for something much more sedate. In such a time, you may find yourself drawn to titles like Night in the Woods, or The Unfinished Swan - both titles thoroughly deserving of your attention - but, if youíll allow me to opine for a moment, I think Ghost of a Tale might just be your next favourite chillout game.

That is, if you can get past the massive gameplay shift in the middle.

Right from the start, you get a firm idea of what the gameís strengths and weaknesses are. The game opens with text, and your adorable mouse protagonist, Tilo, getting up from the bed in his dingy cell. Itís wonderfully-written text, and the cell is lovingly designed, but itís text nonetheless, and great as the cellís design is, it lacks the impressive technical prowess found in other more expensive games.
In short, the gameís budget is an omnipresent barrier that constantly pushes back against the gameís lofty artistic ambitions.
Once you escape the cell, youíre treated to a sequence where you have to get out of the dungeon without being seen, and subsequently beaten up by huge rats. This forms the gameís tutorial, and it introduces the stealth mechanics that youíll be playing with for just about a third of your playthrough.
During this sequence, youíll learn that the NPCs have great dialogue and clear personality, your ďvisual discretionĒ stat makes almost no difference, you canít just be naked, all the animals are strangely to scale, and that the guardsí AI ranges from fairly dim to The Terminator. That said, once you finally manage to leave the dungeon and the game opens up somewhat, avoiding the rat guards becomes a substantially easier affair.

It was at about this point that the game threw its most impressive bug and feature at me in one and the same instance. See, Ghost of a Tale features a really quite pretty day/night cycle, and some lovely god rays, and itís just so keen on showing you them that said evening-time god rays came up through the floor and blinded me for a little while.

If you havenít guessed yet, thereís a not insignificant amount of jank to be found here.

From here on, youíre introduced to the smithy, and to Silas, the former of which will give you items, and the latter is your faithful companion for the duration of the game. You may also meet the other mice in the game: the friendly cook Ouma Rezzia, and the dorky rapscallion bandits Gusto and Fatale. For the most part, Silas is the main quest-giver, and also one of the most well-written characters Iíve seen in a videogame. Any and all dialogue opportunities with him are a delight.
However, once you meet Silas, youíll get your first quest, which is to get yourself a suit of armour from different parts of the environment youíve found so far, which the smithy will then adjust for you, so that you can walk among the rats as Private Scow - the shortest stormtrooper ever to use non-violence.

Herein lies that massive gameplay shift I mentioned. Up until now, Ghost of a Tale has been a stealth game with RPG elements, but once Tilo gets the armour, the whole affair turns into a Lucasarts adventure game. With the stealth element all but completely discarded, the game swiftly shifts gears and leans heavily on the newfound dialogue options with the rat characters, and a new mystery for you to solve.

Once the game reaches that part, youíll face a series of quests that open up the environment of Dwindling Heights, but really, from that point on, the most interesting point for me was the massive guilt trip I experienced.
Surely, it must be a testament to the quality of the writing that about an hour after getting the suit of armour, I felt so sorry for ever wanting to stab the rats. See, whenever Iím faced with a stealth scenario, I tend to follow the logic that a dead guard is less of a hassle than a live one, and that no guards is by far the preferable outcome. So imagine my surprise when I started to really empathise with them.
Ghost of a Tale goes out of its way to portray the ornery soldiers patrolling the castle, and all the other NPCs you meet, as sympathetic individuals, and by the time you get to the end of the game, youíll find yourself feeling like one of the family.
The writing naturally extends to Tilo, too, who has a variety of dialogue options in many different interactions, none of which seem out of character for him, while also accommodating the playerís choices. It doesnít stop there, though, because thereís lore.

Of course thereís lore. Itís a fantasy rpg.

As is the theme for the rest of the game, the lore present in Ghost of a Tale isnít anywhere near the scale of some other titles, but it makes up for it by keeping all the lore concise, snappy, and relevant to the game. The result is that each time a character says a word youíve not heard before and itís highlighted in yellow, chances are youíll feel compelled to look it up. Itís fun, I promise.

Itís not all plain sailing, though. While I mentioned thereís a few technical issues before, the gameplay has some caveats of its own, chief among them being some opaque mission scripting. At a handful of points in my playthrough, I found myself looking up a walkthrough of the game because I couldnít work out how I could possibly get a character to do something, only to find out that I had to do a story mission before the event I needed would trigger. In another case, I spent quite a while searching for an item, and ended up throwing myself down a hole and dying because - again - I needed to do another story mission.
Thereís also a set of annoyances and quibbles that pop up in the game design. Perhaps the most egregious of these gripes is the armour, which until you upgrade it to maximum level, forces you to move with all the speed and agility of a mark 4 tank. This makes the act of mingling with the rats rather irksome in the early hours of gameplay. Thereís also a not insubstantial amount of inventory tetris involved in playing Ghost of a Tale, and though your inventory is rarely - if ever - a problem, navigating it is rather cumbersome at times, and swapping out different items of clothing for maximum stats takes far longer than it should. Perhaps a quick costume wheel would sort that, but alas, itís inventory time whenever you want to mix and match. Moreover, given that your outfits are such an integral part of your quests, itís also a little disappointing that this necessitates a disproportionately high amount of fetch-quests. Throughout my time with the game, I found myself searching for identity discs, clothes, keys, bugs, and probably some other doodads Iíve forgotten.
There also exists a slightly disappointing limitation in the environment itself, insofar that as nice as Dwindling heights is, it only ever feels like the tutorial area of a much bigger, deeper experience. Again, Iím fairly sure that if Ghost of a Tale had the kind of budget that AAA titles have, Iíd be able to explore a much larger environment, but as it is, the wider world remains nought but flavour text in your small, cosy adventure.
Given the quality of the experience, itís not that I necessarily felt cheated out of a bigger game, more that I really wanted to see what else this world had to offer.

I think if thatís the ultimate take-away, then this game did something right.

I think thereís something to be said for games that have undeniable flaws, but which still manage to leave a good impression long after the credits roll. The games that need just that little more time in the oven or just that precious extra bit of cash to fully realise what they wanted to do, but which you can appreciate for their clear strengths anyway. In that respect, Ghost of a Tale well and truly fits the bill: a solid adventure throughout, with twists and turns, and rock-solid gameplay, which falls short of a glowing review by way of a few rough edges. Itís a good time from start to finish, just one with a few caveats along the way.

The bottom line is that Ghost of a Tale is well worth your time. Now, if youíll excuse me, I have some rats to talk to.

Project Horror 2019

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Flobknocker's avatar
Community review by Flobknocker (October 26, 2019)

Flobknocker is the nonsensical nom-de-plume of a British guy who occasionally writes about videogames, and who belongs to a mysterious cult that all gather round a helmet every weekend to perform rituals in the hope of bringing about a new Motorstorm game

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