[Disclosure: A preview key was provided for the contents of this article]
As we all know, life is full of surprises; many of them bad, and many of them good. Videogames are no exception to this rule, and I can remember at least as many dismal AAA titles as I can indie triumphs. I’ve only played a couple of hours of Ghost of a Tale so far, but it is showing all the hallmarks of being among the latter. Currently less than half finished, Ghost is a labour of love for ex DreamWorks and Universal Studios animator Lionel Gallat, yet already the game looks fantastic, and has the kind of singular purpose that only an individual designer can bring.
Set in a medieval fantasy world occupied by upright, talking animals such as rats, mice, frogs and more, Ghost tells the tale of Tilo, a mouse imprisoned primarily because of what he is. You see Ghost has a pretty weird backstory, much of which has not been revealed to me yet, but which I have some understanding of thanks to the opening sequence. We are told that in the past, an emerald flame swept through the land, killing all that stood before it and turning them into undead followers. Rather than face the same fate, the mice chose to make a bargain with it, offering secrets about the weaknesses of other creatures in return for their own safety. The emerald flame took those secrets, but it destroyed the land of mice all the same.
In fact, the emerald fire was only stopped by the strength of the rats, although we never learn how. As a result of their betrayal, the mice were cast out from the ruling class, and are now forced to live a life of servitude, crime or in other ignominy. I haven’t quite learned specifically why Tilo is locked up, but I have a feeling it is for a greater crime than he is actually guilty of. He has about his person a carving of his infant son, and we learn that he was with his wife at the time of his arrest. Our quest at the outset of the game, is nothing more than to be reunited with them.
Tilo has no weapons, attacks or even skills (at the start of the game) but like all mice, he is cunning, stealthy, and above all else, cute. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a more charismatic, beautifully animated creature than Tilo in any game, ever. Turn him towards the camera and his big, black eyes and slightly skittish movements speak a thousand words about his inquisitiveness and the level of nervous energy that is so characteristic of his species. His tail moves realistically, as do his legs and his body. Aside from the fact that they are the opposite of cute, the rat guards look just as good. Early on we meet a frog pirate. He looks just like a frog pirate should, resplendent with his hat and flowing beard, yet still clearly a green amphibian.
On that note, what I’ve seen of the plot and script is exceptional as well, with the frog pirate being a standout example. The frog asks Tilo to undertake a side quest for him, but what appears to be a “do a thing, get a thing” quest actually turns out to be a gentle exercise in learning how to sneak, wrapped up some witty and genuinely amusing banter. There are a few bits of written dialogue around the prison in which the opening sequence takes place, and all of it is penned to a high standard, even if the chosen font is bloody hard to read.
Because of his inability to launch direct attacks, Tilo must use his wits to lure, hide from, sneak around and occasionally incapacitate enemies using the environment. Even though the game is incomplete, there is already a fair amount of variation in the way that each task can be handled, but the route through the environments I’ve seen is linear, so you’ll often find yourself baiting enemies, tracking back to an intersection and then sneaking behind them. The more fun thing to do is to drop barrels on them, or throw a vial of oil to make them slip, but such things are not always available to you.
With a proposed twelve to twenty hours of content, I think Ghost has the potential to weave a fairly entertaining yarn, and so far it looks and sounds great, with very solid sneaking fundamentals to underpin it. The inventory screen hints at potential for a moderately heavy RPG, although I have no idea how that might develop into the final release. I have to say, I am very, very excited by the prospect of Ghost of a Tale, and it looks to me like one to watch, so here’s hoping.