Games like this are hard to judge on face value alone. When you take more common, action oriented titles, it can be easier to tell from just a minute or two of uninterrupted gameplay footage if a game is going to be worth your time or not. But slower paced, narrative focused titles, like Whispering Willows, are considerably harder to figure out from just viewing a short trailer. Games like this are driven by their quality of narrative and puzzle design. Does the crisp and whimsical imagery evident in WW’s screenshots affirm a similarly elegant literary and brain teasing experience? Unfortunately, no, not even close. But Whispering Willows is still an endearing first effort by fledgling studio Night Light Interactive, even with the game’s numerous flaws. In fact, it’s more what the game doesn’t
try to do that is most disheartening.
I’ll begin with the most egregious error this game makes: the quality of narrative. The story is thus: young Elena’s father has gone missing, and has been for some time. After waking from a particularly vivid nightmare of her father being held captive by something
, she races to an old, decrepit mansion, of which her father is the groundskeeper. She soon meets the ghost of her ancestor, who teaches her of her heritage, and of her innate ability to leave her body and walk the earth as a spirit, allowing her to commune with the ghosts of those who have yet to pass. What follows is a supernatural tale of loss, deceit and the darkness that festers within.
In truth, the narrative plays out like cross between a darker Goosebumps tale with bits of Clive Barker’s grotesque imagery. This is partly due to the art style; it just doesn’t convey feelings of foreboding and fearfulness that I believe the narrative wants to. Worse, the story takes virtually no risks. But what really hurts the experience is the quality of the dialogue. Throughout the adventure, you will speak with the deceased, and often be asked to find items of importance to them to progress through the story. The dialogue that occurs here is just, well… the best thing I can call it would be, “serviceable”. The dialogue is so often uninspired and plain that it would keep me from really caring for any of the characters’ plights.
I feel I’ve spoken enough on the negatives of the narrative, so let’s move on to the disappointment of the game’s main mechanic, your spirit form, and the weak puzzle design dependent on it. The lack of pluralization is not a mistake, Whispering Willows’ mechanic of Elena’s spirit form most often offers only a single type of puzzle throughout the game. You will come across locked doors, and you will either need to pick up a poorly hidden key or flip a switch. Usually, this means that there is a finely carved, perfectly square hole in the wall or ceiling near to you for your spirit form to slink through. Do so, and there will be a bright blue glowing thing
for you to interact with. This interaction opens the door. This is how nearly every “puzzle” in WW plays out. I can only think of a handful of individual puzzles that do not play out in the same way, though they themselves were no more complex than filling a hole or playing Simon Says with a moveable object. The simple puzzle design falls in line with the game’s progression; it’s largely linear, with nary a handful of instances where you will have to seek out an item outside of the area you’re already in. Even then, though, the item’s location is always spelled out for you, so this is really no more than a mode of adding longevity to this short adventure. And it is
short. In total, I completed the game in under three hours.
Whew, that was a lot of negativity. How about we move on to the more positive aspects of Willows? Speaking purely of the in-game graphics and art style, my opinion is decidedly varied. On one hand, the environments that you explore never amount to anything special, and much like the dialogue, they are content with remaining largely serviceable. The same can be said for the few human characters in-game, who, along with some stilted animations, look oddly plain. This is in stark contrast to my favorite portion of the game, the ghost designs. Their visages reflect how they died, and their appearances range from the grotesque to cringe inducing. Their designs are absolutely phenomenal, and it’s evident where the best of the artistic talent went in the creation of this game. The same can be said for Elena’s own spirit form, whose flowing hair and glowing visage look fantastic, especially in the light of the full moon in outdoor areas.
While the dialogue between yourself and haunting spirits itself does the overall narrative little favor, your interactions with the ghosts of the mansion’s grounds are enriched by the previously mentioned collectible notes scattered along your path throughout the game. Each is one of several diary entries left by the formerly living, and each tells a tale of their final days. While few of them are terribly unique in their subject matter, finding that final piece of each story provided me a greater driving force for playing than the main narrative itself.
As negative as this review has been, the greatest fault I can levy against this game is not what it does poorly, but rather in what it does not even attempt to do. Given all that has already been done with a similar ability in other games, why is Elena’s spirit walking ability as limited as it is? The game is content with delivering only the most lackluster and plain variation possible. And the dialogue... in an adventure title such as this, gameplay often takes a backseat to the narrative. Only, in this case, both aspects are severely limited in their designs. If the sole gameplay mechanic is to be as limited as it is, why was the dialogue not given greater love, to compensate? The game is so filled with potential, and occasionally, this potential appears as though it’s so near to bubbling to the surface, only to be pushed back down below by weak interactions and the umpteenth recycled door “puzzle”.
I did not hate my time with Whispering Willows. Though admittedly, my want to love it so completely has perhaps made me more critical of its faults. I’ll leave it at this: Whispering Willows, for all of its promise, is content with providing only an unenthusiastic effort on its part. For every glimmer of something fresh and unique, of which there are a few, Willows buries it under less-than-uninspired dialogue and consistently recycled puzzle design. I beat the game, with all of my fumbling, in under three hours. By the end, my only thoughts were on what could have been
, had this game taken just a little more risk, rather than on my final moments with Elena. There just isn’t enough content or thought put into Whispering Willows to make it fully