Genres are a funny thing. They are useful as an approximation to what something might be liked, but in the end, when taking details into account, they frequently mess up any good description. Whispering Willows is, supposedly, a horror-puzzle game. It turns out it isn’t, and that’s not a bad thing.
Produced by Night Light Interactive after a successful kickstarter campaign (750 backers and $20,747 over its original goal of $15,000), Whispering Willows got the First Place Award at the Seattle Indie Game Competition, as well as the Ouya Create Game Jam First Place Award, and defines its gaming experience in a very particular pace.
Elena, the main character, embarks on a seemingly perilous and haunted journey through an old mansion and its surrounding grounds in an attempt to rescue her father, who has been reported missing. During this risky quest, the young girl discovers she has spiritual powers which are closely related to the terrible history of the long abandoned house.
The first thing I noticed was how gorgeous this game is. Its 2-D hand-drawn visuals are very detailed and have an aesthetic style of its own. Gameplay visuals and animations are simple, yet incredibly nice, and fit perfectly with the the several levels Elena has to go through. The creepy ambience is completed by a very good choice of quiet and dusky music.
Whispering Willows has very slow-paced gameplay which might not be suited for everyone. Most of the player’s time is spent walking around looking for clues, notes and items or speaking to the former inhabitants of the mansion grounds; even though the game has a tense and dark ambience, it never turns into an actual horror experience. In addition to this, and still related to those misleading genre tags, even though this title offers a few puzzles, they pose an almost non-existent difficulty and are too scarce to be taken into account.
This indie title is mostly an interactive story built around the notes and diary entries related to the former house inhabitantes. I was a willing spectator walking around just to see how the story unfolded: there were no choices to be made, no monsters to defeat and almost no dangers. I know this doesn’t sound appealing, however, the ambience and the more than interesting visuals kept me playing til the end. I just had to see how it all wrapped up.
While I pushed on looking for Elena’s father, I visited a wide range of places, which varied from dark catacombs to trashed rooms, and even a haunted garden maze. Each of those spaces had its own sad beauty, which made me feel a very slight poetic wrongness. As I got to know the background of the most important characters, the story got a bit more complex and even dabbled in serious issues.
Even though the game becomes a bit predictable and uses some cliches, if you are like me, and you can get caught by a story easily, you will notice there is a hint of despair and solitude that can be perceived beyond the obvious elements. Elena is a young girl walking around dusty corridors and humid caves, surrounded only by ancient spirits bound to be restless because of their violent past. There is a lot to discover in the Willows mansion.
Whispering Willows may lack some strengths common to its supposed genre, but is a well accomplished product amongst those in a new narrative fashion, such as Gone Home, which sadly are not even considered as games by some people. All in all, It is a very nice experience if you don’t mind playing a book, watching a story or reading a game.
[+Great visuals] [+Well accomplished ambience] [-Slow-paced] [-Not really a horror game] [-Puzzles are scarce and too easy]