Review: 'Ghost of a Tale'
Ghost of a Tale is described as an action-RPG game with stealth elements, dialogues and quests. Of particular interest to furs is that you play as an anthropomorphic mouse character in a world that's very reminiscent of Brian Jacques' Redwall series. Impressively, it is primarily the work of a single developer, Seith, and was funded via IndieGoGo. Ghost of a Tale was available in early access for a long time, although I waited until after the full game was released, in March 2018, before buying a copy.
Like so many other stealth/rpg games, the story starts with you in a dungeon, where you find a note and the key to your cell. From there you escape the cell, sneak your way out of the dungeon and have to find the person who helped you escape. This beginning is very similar to one of my favourite games, Dishonored, although without all the potential murder.
Many of the characters are familiar archetypes though they are well-written and, as you progress, they become a lot deeper and more fleshed out. Although there many generic aspects, the game can still surprise you. In one side quest, I found myself drugged and captured in a move that I had absolutely not foreseen.
There is also a fair amount of lore and world building involved in the game. Some aspects of the lore are more important than others. We learn that mice carve figurines of their loved ones, called lutkas [a word with unfortunate connotations in Finnish], which they carry along with them. When their loved ones die, these previously-white figurines are stained black with ash. Not only is that really sweet but this knowledge is necessary to truly understand some quest lines.
However, the main way to gain this background knowledge is through footnotes. During dialogue, certain words are highlighted and, if you want, you can get an extra few lines or paragraphs explaining that word. This is functional but it breaks immersion in a way that doesn't happen when reading the books in Dishonored.
Ghost of a Tale is described as an action-RPG with stealth elements but I find that a bit misleading. There are RPG aspects but they play a very minor role. The action aspect is also lacking. Similarly to Styx: Master of Shadows, you are not able to directly attack enemies in all but a few circumstances. With the exception of spiders, those attacks are always non-lethal.
The stealth element is there and plays a big role at the start of the game. The stealth mechanics are functional but nothing special and are soon abandoned. One of the aspects of the game is that, like with the Hitman series, you can wear different disguises. One disguise causes guards to treat you as friendly and essentially removes any further need for stealth.
At that point there is almost no need to care about health points or detection ever again. The only difficulty in the game comes from any platforming aspects and whether you are able to find the items you need for your quests. "Find" being the operative word here.
Ghost of a Tale's main problem is that nearly every quest is just a shopping list of things to find. Some are well hidden, some are obvious but as you long as you have patience it shouldn't be a problem. Trying to find everything can be incredibly frustrating, especially for quests that you get early on but which can only be completed when you've opened up new areas of the map.
Gameplay is also a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you aren't babied with waypoint markers and instead just have small clues. This is a welcome change and reminiscent of how Morrowind played before modern games became a simple exercise of "follow the waypoint." The drawback is that the clues are not always clear and the game doesn't keep a very good record of what you've been told. This led me to a lot of running around trying to find things because I'd forgotten exactly what the clue was and it wasn't in my quest log.
Other than search quests there are occasional dialogue options which seem to be for experience points only. I say that because I managed to select every possible wrong answer to one question before finding the right one and suffered no negative penalties at all!
I had no problems with the sound effects in Ghost of a Tale. The sound of scurrying around was quite nice and the environmental sounds all fitted well. The music was good too, helping to set the mood without becoming overwhelming and speeding up whenever I was detected by enemies.
My sole complaint about the audio is what is lacking; voice acting. This was almost certainly a budget issue but I feel the lack of voice acting is very disappointing. If it was just that I don't get to hear kooky pirate frog Kerold that would be one thing; the dialogue is funny enough with just text. The bigger issue is that we play as a bard and songs feature at several points in the game. This does not work well purely through text.
This brings us to the visual part of audiovisual and, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of Ghost of a Tale. The entire game is beautiful! Characters and environments are filled with detail and colour and give the game a distinctive look.
Ghost of a Tale also has day/night cycles which you won't notice while underground but when you have access to the outside environments, you can see how the world changes over time and enjoy a truly beautiful sunrise. I really appreciated that this is even worked into the gameplay, with one quest involving where a specific shadow falls at a particular time of day.
As beautiful as it all looks, there is one peculiarity of the lighting that I do want to point out. The game seems to adjust environmental lighting according to the light falling on your character. There is one entrance to a cave where, if you stand in the entrance passage to the Northern Shore, you will see everything is quite dark. If you step a little further out of the cave and into sunlight, you will see the cave itself becomes brighter and you can see everything. The strangest part is that that is the exact opposite of how things would work in reality!
Bugs, Bugs, Bugs
Although officially released and no longer in early access, Ghost of a Tale still has many bugs. Near the end of my playthrough, I was forgiving most of the game's flaws until one bug wasted at least 45 minutes of my time and nearly prevented me from even finishing the game! No game is bug-free but due to their number, visibility and, at times, severity, I do think they need to be mentioned.
I encountered two bugs in the catacombs. Once, I fell off the map and survived. But that only happened once. There is one tunnel where the walls do not form correctly and, as happened to me, it is possible to become stuck in the walls. This is highly visible and reproducible, occurring every time I went down that path.
I also found a very visible bug when using the red mist ability. The red mist highlights items and parts of the environment that you can interact with. I found it often highlights items that have already been picked up or banners that have already been burned.
Several achievements triggered for strange reasons and before all the criteria had been met. For example, I received awards for killing all spiders, stealing all handkerchiefs, opening all shutters and burning all banners before those were really complete. I know because I later found ones that I had never interacted with. In the case of the spiders, I think the game counted blocking worm holes as spider kills, but I can only assume the other achievements measure progress according to an earlier stage of the game. I bought the game from GOG.com and played through GOG Galaxy, so I do not know if this also applies when playing through Steam.
Those are minor issues though. What really sullied the game for me was something that happened right near the end. There is a chest that, when opened, will trigger some dialogue and then the final quest. When I tried to open the chest that did not trigger. No matter how much I tried nothing happened and I was left completely confused, running over the map trying all sorts of things to no avail. It was only after I found a thread describing the same issue and the solution of running a config reset script included in the game folder that I was able to finish the game.
If no one had made that thread, I'd likely not have been able to finish the game. I didn't even think I was looking for a bug; there was nothing to indicate anything had gone wrong, as certain new enemies had been triggered. It looked like everything was working. Having a major bug that can prevent completion of the game in your main quest line is just unacceptable. I can only hope that future updates will address these issues.
Ghost of a Tale is beautiful, bright and charming with some real surprises, interesting characters and funny dialogue. It's let down by the lack of voice acting, repetitive quests and several, sometimes game-breaking, bugs. It will probably disappoint hardcore stealth gamers though it might make for a light-hearted break from the darker tone of other stealth games. For furs, the characters and visuals will be the main drawcard and, once started, Ghost of a Tale should be able to draw you in for a very cute ride.