Title: Whispering Willows
Developer: Night Light Interactive
Platforms: PS4/PS Vita
Price: $12.99 ($9.99 w/ PS Plus)
As a long time hardcore gamer, I’ve been guilty of overlooking many a game that appeared to be something geared toward the casual crowd. While I’m sure some of you fellow hardcore gamers have done the same thing for one reason or another, in recent times I’ve been doing a better job at being open to all forms of games, because you never know when there might be a fun experience to be had. Whispering Willows, developed by the talented folks at Night Light Games (@NightLightGames), is a horror-themed adventure tale that very much falls into the casual camp, but still offers up an atmospheric experience bolstered by a strong story.
Whispering Willows tells the tale of Elena Elkhorn, a young girl who’s searching for her missing father. He disappeared while working as the groundskeeper for Wortham Willows, a wealthy tycoon who is loved by all and helped revitalize the town in which they live. Elena, like her father, has a paranormal ability that stems from a bloodline of powerful shaman. This ability allows her spirit to cross between the worlds of the living and the dead. Much like the children in movies The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, Elena is able to converse with spirits who are caught in limbo and haven’t accepted the fact that they are dead. You’ll need to help them in assorted ways in the hopes of helping them find peace and move on.
While there is good banter between Elena and the spirits, the strength of the story featured in Whispering Willows is found in letters scattered across the premises of the Willows Mansion. These letters from the game’s central spiritual figures help to not only flesh out their backstories — some of which are quite sad — but also reveal that Wortham himself may not be the saint that the town has made him out to be. It’s a strong, albeit short, story that doesn’t waste any opportunity to give you a deeper look into the pain and guilt that these spirits are shouldering. It’s not often I’ll read many notes that I come across in games, but after playing Whispering Willows, you better believe I’ll take the time to read any I come across going forward. I just hope they’re as rich and engaging as the ones found here.
In terms of gameplay, this is very much a casual game. The puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, but you will want to remember where certain items or locked doors are early on because you will need to go back to them at some point. In spirit form, Elena not only converses with other spirits, but she’s able to maneuver through small cracks in walls to reach other rooms. She’s also able to possess certain objects that can be moved to open up new paths that were previously impassable. One strange mechanic that I didn’t quite understand was that while outside, Elena is able to run, but indoors she can only walk. This can be somewhat annoying, especially when you know you have to leave the mansion — which is pretty large with many rooms — to go to another building on the property. I can’t help but wonder if this was done in an effort to keep you from progressing too quickly through a game that can be beaten in less than two hours. Overall, the game handles much like you’d expect from an adventure game. I would’ve liked to have seen some more challenging puzzles to solve — like the ones found in the similarly styled The Swapper, for instance — but in the end, what’s here is serviceable.
The other strong suits that Whispering Willows has going for it are its sound design and art style. The sound design on display here is very atmospheric, whether it is the eerie breeze gusting through the woods, the rustling of the trees, or the many sounds lingering throughout the mansion itself. It creates a chilling experience, even though there aren’t many scares. The developer is seemingly going for more of a creepy effect as opposed to an all-out scare-fest, which I’m fine with because it’s done very well here. The art style is very pretty, and the details of every room in the mansion, as well as the surrounding buildings, all add to the overall creepy vibe of Whispering Willows.
There are a few minor gripes here, and chief among them is that the game can be beaten in one sitting. Seeing as the game is currently priced at $12.99 ($9.99 for PlayStation Plus members), it does seem like it’s a bit high considering the amount of content without much replay value. Also, despite a few moments where you have to evade a creature of sorts or contend with a few spider-looking apparitions only visible while using Elena’s spiritual self, there is little challenge to be had here considering this is an adventure-horror game. The aforementioned inability to run through the interior of buildings, especially troublesome if you get lost in the mansion, rounds out my list of issues. Despite these minor gripes, they never negatively affected my enjoyment of the story.
Whispering Willows is another example of why gamers need to try out some of these smaller gamers from talented independent developers. While it may not blow you away in terms of its gameplay or overall length, there is still a very strong story here that deserves to be experienced by those looking for as much. It may be hard for some gamers on a budget to justify spending $12.99 on a game as short as Whispering Willows, but if you’re a fan of adventure games, casual or hardcore, there’s an awesome, creepy experience waiting for you at Willows Mansion.
- Effectively creepy atmosphere
- Strong narrative found within scattered notes
- Switching between Elena and her spiritual self
- Extremely short
- No replay value once you've beaten it
- Unable to run while inside buildings