Whispering Willows is a 2D adventure game from Night Light Interactive. Originally developed for Ouya and released last year, Abstraction Games have taken it upon themselves to publish it for the Wii U.
The game starts as you take control of Elena Elkhorn, a young girl searching for her missing father who disappeared at his new work place, the Willows Mansion. As Elena races into the mansion grounds the pendant her father gave to her begins to glow and suddenly apparition appears in front of her making Elena stumble to the ground in shock. The ground gives way and Elena plummets into the darkness below.
This is where you take control. Lost in the dark of what appear to be catacombs, you retrieve your fallen pendant and proceed to try and find the exit. It’s not long before you come across another apparition “Flying Hawk” a Native American spirit, who is thankfully much more friendly than the last one. He is still searching for his missing body that would allow him to finally rest in peace. In return for helping him out he teaches you how to project yourself as a spirit into the ghost world.
Projecting yourself as a spirit is the main gameplay mechanic. In this form Elena can make her way through small cracks and even posses things such as leavers or furniture. This allows you to enter rooms you’re unable to access normal or pick up items normally out of reach.
Considering this mechanic is what makes up most of the gameplay, the puzzles it helps you in solving are actually very, very simple. Pull this level to open the door, push this chair out of the way to unblock the door. There is no difficulty here and no need to strain your brain at any point. It’s a very simple game mechanically. The gameplay however just serves what’s supposed to be the main draw of the game: the story.
As stated the main reason Elena is on this adventure is to find her father and while that’s always the end goal, there’s a lot to discover in this short yet packed story. It’s a tale of love, betrayal and murder. As you casually make your way through the four chapters of the game you will pick up notes laid around, written by character in the story detailing past events.
Through out the Mansion’s estate, there are a good number of spirits still hanging around, still unable to let go of their past existence .Elena’s ability to project herself into the spirit world also allows her to converse with these people. While some offer nothing useful to say, some will give you advice on how to proceed, others will tell you the history of the events leading up to this mystery. It’s these ghost and the afore-mentioned notes that add real texture to the story of the Willow Mansion.
The story is actually rather good. It doesn’t really bring anything new, but it’s a classic mystery solving adventure and sometimes that’s all you need. The characters are interesting and all have their own personalities and quirks. It’s just a shame you don’t get to spend enough time with them, something Elena also laments along the way.
It’s a short game of course, between two and a half hours to three if you’re really pushing it. I say that because it’s practically impossible to not know what your next move it. Everything is very logical in its progression, the items, the layout and the story. You always know where you need to go next. It’s not a game you will get stuck on and I feel that is good for this game. The story is the strongest point of Whispering Willows and if vagueness stopped you from getting to the next story segment, it would really disjoint and stall the whole experience.
The mansion itself is pretty huge. You start your way in the catacombs and eventually enter the Mansion itself, the guesthouse, the gardens and even the conservatory. It’s actually rather reminiscent of the Spencer Mansion from the original Resident Evil and I love that. The story allows the mansion and its secrets to open up in a nice, rational way. I think the whole map is actually well planned out.
There are enemies in this game, although admittedly very few and far between. I genuinely like this approach. Whispering Willows is not a scary game by any means, but not knowing where the next enemy will be adds to the tension. What I didn’t enjoy was the execution of the enemy that appears the most often. They are little critter things that patrol up and down corridors and can only be seen when you are in spirit form. I found the fact you can’t see them while you are trying walk past them safely rather annoying. Thankfully they only appear a couple of times throughout the game and even if they do snag you, you will re-spawn from the nearest door you entered. In other words, it’s not that bad.
The main issue I have with the game are the amount load screens. They happen way too many times and are really intrusive to the game, especially after an extended play, or if you need to walk from one end of the map to the other. Every time you go through a door (which there are a lot of!) you are greeted with a load screen; 2 or 3 seconds at a time, every time. At least each chapter has different load screen artwork, but that does little to alleviate the annoyance.
The end of the game sees you facing off against the primary antagonist. However, it’s not your usual boss fight. In fact there is no combat involved at all. Instead it goes for what I can only describe as a mixture between Back to the Future and A Christmas Carol in its execution. It’s actually really nice and a clever ending that ties the story up well. It’s only marred by the annoying load screens in between all the action!
The visuals are nice and cartoony. Character designs are well drawn and everybody is distinct. I especially enjoy the design of all the spirits in which their art always gives a clue to how they died. The main character, Elena, is especially well designed. She has a very individual, almost iconic look. You can tell she’s young, brave and yet still rather delicate revealed by wearing her father’s oversized raincoat.
Music is usually just atmospheric, creepy things, nothing too special. It adds to the game without standing out too much. I think it’s really difficult to judge game’s music that’s purposely written to be subtle and creepy because there’s generally not supposed to be a lot of layers or standout parts. The sound design is overall quite good, if a little too loud in places compared to other games. I like the fact as you’re walking in the mansion you can hear the clunking of footsteps on wooden boards somewhere in the distance.
Intermittently through the game there will be animated cut-scenes. The animation is usually minimal; it’s probably more described as moving storyboard. Maybe it will sound a little harsh, but to me the cut-scenes don’t look all that spectacular, they looked like they weren’t really finished in time, more like an early draft of what they could have been. I understand that this is from a small studio with a small budget so I guess to have cut-scenes at all is an achievement in itself.
Overall, Whispering Willows is a nice enjoyable way to spend a few hours. The gameplay and puzzles are rather simple and it’s let down a little by the constant load screens. Despite that it has a great, classic story that will leave you feeling satisfied once it’s over.
- Nice story
- Good visuals
- Well planned out progression
- Invisible enemies
- Load screens
Game provided by publisher