Title: Whispering Willow
System(s): PC (Also on Ouya)
Release Date: July 9, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Night Light Interactive (Night Light Interactive)
ESRB Rating: N/A, but I think it’d be appropriate for players ages 13 and up.
We now live in a gaming world where successful Kickstarter games that actually survive the development process are a rarity. The fact that they’ve actually come through, perhaps even according to schedule, is enough for some to celebrate. Yet, in the case of Whispering Willows, the fact that it’s a crowdfunding endeavor gone right is the last thing we should be lauding the game for. Instead, we should be celebrating the fact that this is an evocative, beautiful adventure game with a strong heroine, thoughtful plot, and ethereal presentation.
An otherworldly rescue operation.
Elena’s father is gone. He was hired as the groundskeeper at the abandoned, Willows Mansion, and just disappeared at work one day. No one knows what to think, but Elena has an idea. An amulet has been passed down through the Elkhorn family, and she has a feeling there’s a supernatural element at play. Fearlessly, she dons her father’s coat, puts on the necklace, and heads to the mansion.
There, her suspicions are concerned as she goes through the Willows Mansion’s crypts. She comes cross Flying Hawk, a shaman from the Kwantano tribe from which she’s descended. Those who wear the amulet can perform astral projections, and send their spirits off to speak with the recently deceased, explore unreachable areas, or possess inanimate objects. Suddenly empowered, Elena now has a chance to find her father and bring him home.
Talking to (and occasionally avoiding) the dead.
The Willows Mansion has a dark history. It was built by Wortham Willows, the town’s mayor and a driving force behind its success. Elena had heard things about him at school, but everything she learns from the abandoned journals and ghosts trapped on the grounds suggests otherwise. Insanity, mass Kwantano genocide, and even the murder of his best friend hint that Wortham wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. And reaching her father will mean appeasing the more reasonable spirits while avoiding the antagonistic specters. Information is delivered via encounters and letters, slowly building while also offering multiple viewpoints for a more complete story. It’s quite effective.
Take Flying Hawk, for example, the first friendly ghost Elena encounters. Flying Hawk teaches her about her powers, but is doing so in the hopes that Elena will return his spirit to his body so he can pass on. He doesn’t exactly explain what happened to him, we learn through acquired notes from Flying Hawk and Wortham Willows. Aiding this ghost means exploring the crypts and guest house, finding another pleasant ghost some sheet music, venturing through a basement where the unhappy, vengeful souls of slaughtered Kwantano were buried, then doing into a tight, uncomfortable space to fulfill a promise. This amounts to most “good” ghost fetch quests, and a lot of carefully dodging or outrunning malevolent entities.
While sometimes complicated, I actually enjoyed the thrill of the chase when it came to getting Elena to safety when darker phantoms were involved. The very first instance involves a huge force being let loose after Elena acquires an object, and a player has to run to an exit, quickly astral project Elena’s soul through a gap in a wall, possess a switch so it can be flipped, then return to her body so she can continue her escape.
I think the key is that Whispering Willows controls so well. Leaving and returning to Elena’s body is done with the push of a button, and you can be any distance away when you decide it’s time to head back. I never once found them finicky, so when ghosts started attacking in the garden maze or I had to keep track of spiritual spider/demon in a hallway, I could trust that Elena would go where I wanted her to and descend a stairway without any delays.
The imagery helps as well. Whispering Willows perfectly captures the isolated and otherworldly situation. The mansion and its grounds look spooky and deserted, and the characters (both human and ghostly) are all crispy and distinct. There’s character in these people and places, and I hope people who play appreciate the artistry and animations.
The second anyone comes up and says they have a ghostly video game you have to play, the risk of disappointment runs high. The second spirits are involved, some people are going to protest that it simply wasn’t scary, balk about there not being enough depth, or complain because it didn’t provide the proper ambiance. Yet Whispering Willows is so pitch perfect that it should satisfy the needs of any gamer who wants to follow a character as she interacts with the recently deceased. It’s not horrifying, but it’s haunting. There are a few lighthearted, even heartwarming, moments, yet there’s also plenty of thought provoking situations and depth. It’s beautiful, but also dark. Whispering Willows has it all, and I’m confident every adventure fan will appreciate that.
Site [Night Light Interactive]