Whispering Willows sounds great on paper. You take on the role of Elena Elkhorn, a young girl on the search for her missing father. Aiding her in her quest is an heirloom amulet which allows Elena to project her spirit into an otherworldly realm. Using this gift to solve the mansion’s tricks, investigate its secrets and aid the accursed souls,  Elena soon learns that the history of Whispering Willows is closely tied to her father’s disappearance.

The premise is intriguing and seems to hint at a number of compelling gameplay opportunities. The problem is that Whispering Willows never truly capitalizes on them.

At its core, Night Light Interactive’s indie side-scroller is about investigation and exploration. From serpentine catacombs and sunless gardens to a not-so-abandoned mansion, Elena’s search gives way to some distinct, harrowing locales. Strewn along the way are diary entries of Willow’s late residents which form the backbone of the story. Every spirit Elena touches upon has their own narrative. Whether it’s the conflicted industrialist Mr. Willow, or the furtive, Irish elevator operator, it’s easy to yearn for these characters’ tales. Especially when their notes paint a deeply personal picture. However, what started as intriguing soon became boring and one-dimensional, since the writing in the notes weren’t delivered consistently.

Aside from supplying some context to Willow’s estate, these diaries did little to accent their writer’s nuances. I heard the voice of but one writer, who distinguished each character by neatly arranging them into cliches. Mr. Willow, for instance, doesn’t even try to hide the racism bestowed by his European ancestry. And the Irish elevator operator is – well, you guessed it – a drunk. This quickly stripped both personality from these characters and the want for a fuller story.

steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_127493887_previewThankfully, it’s not all about reading, since Elena encounters many of Willow’s late residents in spirit form. But they all seem to constantly demand your help and attention. Not to mention these encounters are mandatory and inherently menial. Since It always boils down to fetching some item, be it flowers, letters, keys or other trinkets, I frequently felt led stray from my real purpose. And the nature of their tasks ensured the ability to astral project never went to good use. Soon Elena became less of an ethereal investigator and more of an errand girl helping a group of needy children. And when their stories touched on some darker themes, the effect was almost comical. Turning some potentially interesting characters into caricatures meant I never took them seriously.

The level design doesn’t aid the malaise either. With no map or way to track where you’ve been, meandering through Willows can become frustrating, and the joy of exploring some truly interesting locales fell flat. A saunter through the garden’s overgrowth may have been a tense, invigorating trip if I didn’t have to sift through a series of confusing entryways simply to pluck some of the local fauna. Luckily, the few threats that exist always seem to appear in a convenient fashion. Whether its spiders clicking on the creaky wooden floor, or tree beasts ready to shackle you with their roots, Willow’s enemies serve the sole purpose of putting Elena on a direct path to an otherwise lost exit. This created a problematic relationship – I felt encouraged and, in fact, aided by my foes yet hamstrung by my ghostly friends.

This isn’t to say that the moment-to-moment gameplay is bad. In fact, Whispering Willows plays fairly well as an exploration game. Each location and every new room is treated with special care. Bedecked with unique furniture and tapestries, webs woven into dark corners and the consistent layers of dust make Willows seem like a real, once vibrantly occupied space. And the uniqueness to every object, room and character give Willows pleasing hand-crafted personality. Though the puzzles are often straightforward, I appreciate how they streamline the experience. The puzzles often come down to retrieving objects, finding hidden levers or guiding your spirit form through tight enclosures. A player eager for intricate puzzles might find themselves wanting, but I felt this helped emphasize Whispering Willows’  greatest strength: taking in the space. Barring the diaries and the menial fetch-quests, the experience rarely felt stagnant.

Whispering_Willows-2There isn’t anything game breaking about Whispering Willows, but nothing exceptional either. The story is competent but forgettable. The puzzles are simple enough to qualify as minor distractions. And the diary entries supply a great deal of back story but lack the personality and care to make for a compelling read.

For every hesitant step it takes forward, Whispering Willows takes a quick step back.


Review: Whispering Willows
Whispering Willows works as a physical space, even if everything else falls flat
  • Visually pleasing
  • Willows estate an interesting space
  • Frustrating fetch quests
  • Poorly delivered diary entries
  • Story quickly loses impact
6Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)