The greatest heroes often come from small beginnings. Some of fiction’s most epic tales are told not about the strongest warriors or the grandest knights but about the unsuspecting champions, the ones who don’t choose to embark upon a great journey but are thrown onto that path against their will. Ghost of a Tale, an action-RPG from developer SeithCG sets out to tell one of these stories as it follows the plight of Tilo, a minstrel mouse on a quest to escape from prison and find his lost love, Merra. The game may only be in early access, but it’s easy to tell from the start that this will be a grand and dangerous adventure for this small lionhearted mouse.
When we’re first thrown into Tilo’s shoes, he has been confined to a prison cell for committing crimes of sedition and left with few possessions. It’s unclear how long he’s been inside, but our journey begins when he receives a mysterious note from a stranger known only as ‘S’ and a key that will release him from his cell. From here, however, Tilo must still escape from the prison itself, evading menacing guard rats and collecting clues about his wife’s wherebouts along the way. To do this, he must enlist the help of other prisoners and unexpected allies in order to obtain the necessary equipment to make a successful getaway – and it turns out this will be no easy feat.
The world of Dwindling Heights is populated entirely by animals and has a warm and nostalgic feel to it. It’s the kind of world that you might picture if someone was telling a tale around a campfire, which acts as a perfect setting for this kind of adventure. The game is currently being developed by a small team headed up by Lionel “Seith” Gallat, a former animator for Dreamworks and Universal Studios, and this background really shows through in the way the characters come to life and immediately fit into this world. Inspiration has been drawn from several mediums with Zelda, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Dark Souls and most noticeably the Redwall series cited as impacting design decisions, but Ghost of a Tale doesn’t feel like a retelling of any of these stories. The genre is familiar, but the tale is unique. Tilo is an adorable and lovable hero, the kind that you might find in a Dreamworks picture, but he has depth beyond that of a cardboard cut-out protagonist.
Atmospherically, this game feels just right. Though occasionally a little too dark, the use of shadows throughout the various areas of Dwindling Heights Keep helps to make the world feel alive, and even at this unfinished stage the game feels polished. As Tilo is a small mouse in a dark world, the main mechanic involves sneaking between objects in the environment that conceal him from the rats that will almost certainly harm him, and these movements feel fluid and logical. While in hiding, Tilo will see the world differently depending on what he’s using for cover, which feels like a nice tough. If he’s crouching in a barrel he can see everything that’s going on around him, but if he’s scurried into a cupboard he will only be able to see through the tiny gap in the door, which can make sound cues especially important. Most of this game will have you sneaking and dashing between hiding spots but some puzzles do involve cleverly distracting the guards and some lateral thinking, which makes for a bit of variation.
The quests themselves mostly involve fetching items for characters so that they will provide you with information or items that are of greater use to you, and this is where the game falls a little short. Though the focus is clearly on stealth and exploration, when you are only provided with a limited area to explore then travelling back and forth through the same rooms looking for collectables can be become a little monotonous. Whether you’re collecting cards or mushrooms, it just starts to feel like busy work, which takes away from the charm of the main quest. Interactions with NPCs do a bit to break up these quests and some codex entries interlaced within conversations go a long way towards making the world feel rich with lore, but the quests themselves lack that depth and meaning. If these were spaced out over a longer game (which may well be the intention for the final product), this mechanic might work better, but being forced to collect various sets of items in this short amount of time feels a little out of place.
Some of these collectables are sets of armour which act as costumes that allow Tilo to take on the roles of various in-world fictional heroes, which does add a nice level of depth. Some characters won’t talk to Tilo if he’s disguised as a thief or a pirate, whereas some will give him more information if he is convincing enough in the role. I’d love to see these disguises play an ongoing role throughout the rest of the game, because it was a neat way of giving the world a history without forcing the player to read large chunks of text. There is an element of this, as conversations are all silent and can feel a little awkward because of it, but that can be forgiven in an indie game that otherwise feels so robust.
Of course, the early access only allowed players to skim the surface of what I hope will be a grand and enchanting tale, but Ghost of a Tale has all the makings of a truly epic adventure. So far it’s a tale for all ages with some niggling gameplay and design faults, that takes place in an intriguingly developed fantasy and that invokes feelings of nostalgic wonder. Its unique charm gives it the potential to become something great – and I am more than a little intrigued to see just how far Tilo will travel.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Ghost of a Tale by SeithCG.