Yahtzee reviews Ghost of a Tale.
All the new games I've played lately have had a distinctly rodent-y theme. I don't know why rats and mice are suddenly the "in" thing; maybe 'cos spring cleaning has begun and I finally chased out that weasel colony that was living in my favorite stack of damp newspapers. First, I played Moss on VR, where you play a brave little mouse, but I figured we did some VR fairly recently, and the tech's still only as relevant to most people's lives as the British space programme. Then, Steam started pushing Vermintide 2 at me, which is mainly about killing rat dudes. "Look, Yahtz! An exciting horde-fighting game where you enter the rich Warhammer universe and start up your own pest control business!"
So I played that for a while, and it brought many an excited cry to my lips, mostly sounding like this: Isn't this just Left 4 Dead? "Um... no, it's Vermintide 2! See? Completely different name!" No, really, this is just Left 4 Dead: four players, hordes of weak enemies, there's the Hunter, there's the Smoker, there's the Spitter. "Don't be silly, Yahtz! Left 4 Dead is a shooter, whereas this has a lot of melee combat!" Oh, right; forgive me. Let me reassess that: Isn't this just Left 4 Dead 2, except with levels and loot boxes and crafting and all the usual "live service" manipulative hornswoggle? Not the best sales pitch, is it? "Hey, kids! Did you like Left 4 Dead 2 but wish that it had held you in more contempt?"
So then, Ghost of a Tale caught my eye, which is a plucky little indie game that came out of nowhere where you play a scared little mouse in a big-rat fantasy castle, and which, before you say anything, is a totally, totally distinct entity from the Redwall books. I'll just say the title again, because you've no doubt forgotten it already: "Ghost of a Tale", which I know sounds like it could be a pun, but I've gone over it eight times with a set square and I'm damned if I can find one. There is a ghost in it, and most of the characters possess tails, but if that's a pun, then a cardboard box full of warmed-up dead fish is a harem.
Anyway, the main character is Tilo, a mouse minstrel imprisoned in the castle dungeon who must embark on a quest to find his wife, also a mouse - his mouse spouse, if you will - and escape. The game that follows likes to refer to itself as an RPG, which is very cute, like a small child wearing their mum's coat, but doesn't have much in the way of RPG elements; you mainly stealth around until you find the armor that turns guards friendly, after which, you just "..." around. What attracted me to Ghost of a Tale was that it appeared to want to stick to its mouse guns; a lot of games with stealth on the menu only have it as a starter dish and it devolves into a straight combat main course at the slightest fuck-up, but Tilo isn't a fighter - his ability to knock out guards with thrown bottles to the bonce notwithstanding, but they don't stay knocked out for long - and he can only scurry away to find a nice toilet to hide in.
I respect the way the game's focus on stealth enhances the story, establishing Tilo as physically all but useless and getting by on raw cunning, and yet the game also doesn't kick you in the teeth the instant you get spotted, 'cos there are hiding places everywhere and it's easy to scurry off like a shy roommate furtively darting to the bathroom in their underpants. I like how Tilo's speed, small size, and climbing ability give him options for bypassing guard patrols other than having to just creep along behind them the whole time like a toadying lackey with an enthusiasm for farts. But I still have some nitpicks with the stealth; the guards' attention meters still go up even when you're creeping and only go down when you stop, so you might as well not creep at all, just sprint, stop, sprint, stop like an incontinent marathon runner, until your stamina runs out, 'cos sprinting chews it up like popcorn and then all you can do is maintain a huffy brisk walk away from pursuing guards, like a suburban mother very offended that the Whole Foods wouldn't take their expired coupons.
I'm also a bit iffy about the way the camera insists on sticking close to your little furry butt - again, like it's into farts - because it's hard to keep an eye on what's going on in the distance, less a problem while you're in a crammed dungeon, more of one once the game opens up and you have to start exploring large, confusingly laid-out courtyards, or rather, one large, confusingly laid-out courtyard over and over again, because this is one of those games whose dev team is only big enough to get about one-tenth of the way towards satisfying your mum and which could entirely fit in the back of my car given time and a hacksaw.
So the game has to be economical with its content; there aren't that many environments, and you end up going back and forth across them a lot to complete the quests, almost all of which are fetch quests. It was starting to get a bit disheartening every time I saw a little speech bubble icon marking a new friendly NPC, because I knew another fucking fetch quest couldn't be far behind; it's like some fantasy universe where the major religion was World of Warcraft and fetch quests supplanted handshakes as the main form of greeting. You escape the dungeon, meet your mysterious benefactor, and they tell you that they'll take care of all the "finding your wife" business just as soon as you do their fetch quests, all of which will splinter off into fractal fetch quests on the way and would you mind opening that hatch for a second? Whoops! All my pets escaped! Another fetch quest for you!
"Well, what do you want, Yahtz? You're a scared little mouse; fetching stuff is just about your only skill besides scurrying and adorable nose-twitching. What were you expecting, Ornstein and Smough? ...Smoug? ...Smouph? ...What were you expecting, Ornstein and your mum?" I get you, viewer; the fetch quests are just a means to enable the core gameplay, but there are two little sticking points hanging off that fact like turds needing to be pinched off. Firstly, the only benefit to most of the fetch quests is XP, which only levels you up, which only increases your health, which is rarely an issue 'cos you're supposed to pull up your knickers and scarper at the first sign of danger. And secondly, whatever fun can be extracted from the stealth, not too far into the game, you get a rat disguise that removes the stealth challenge entirely, and then the fetch quests are all that's left, like the bad joke on the lollipop stick that remains after everything else has been sucked away.
I probably sound down on the game, and after a while, I was tempted to go back to Vermintide, where I could at least decapitate any rat who demanded I fetch their pipe and slippers, but I stuck with Ghost of a Tale because I think the writing saves it. The dialogue's nicely written; it even, at one point, made me laugh in an out-loud fashion. That's right: a literal lol, and it's a rare thing for me to literally lol because I'm jaded and got the tunnelling brain parasites. And I like the story, the way it starts out nice and simple: mice good, rats bad, escape dungeon, find wife, kiss wife, shag wife, question mark? But as you explore and learn about the world, things get more nuanced: not "mice good, rats bad"; maybe "mice flawed, rats complicated"?
See, the rats tend to be dour and brutal and not the best people to call on if your restaurant's got a health inspection due, but there's also a nobility to them and they seem to be the only ones getting shit organized. Meanwhile, the mice are superficially good-spirited, but in keeping with our stealth activities, lean more towards being sneaky, thieving little cowards. And I hate their big noses and their monopolization of global finance... wait, what were we talking about?
- Was a stoat in a previous life: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- For the record it was the bit where the guard commander shares his poem with you that made me literally lol
- If a badger showed up it'd be like Shadow of the Colossus or something
Extra: Differently Morphous Edit
My latest book, Differently Morphous, is out now on audible.com as an Audible Original, meaning audiobook first with print version further down the line, so get those ears unstuffed. It's a contemporary paranormal fantasy about the difficulties of adapting to modern life when you're a formless Lovecraftian horror from beyond the veil of time and space.