The horror genre has been tackled in many different ways through the medium of video games. Whilst survival horror titles such as ‘Resident Evil’ or ’Silent Hill’ typically rule the roost, every so often a more peculiar title will come along that may spring a surprise on you.
Whispering Willows is one such title, casting you as a young girl who goes looking for her missing father through a haunted mansion. Whilst the premise may not wander too far from horror cliché, developers Night Light Interactive have brought in a unique feature that allows the main character to project herself into a spiritual form – allowing interaction with the many ghosts that wander the desolate halls. It’s an interesting concept and one of the redeeming features in a game that otherwise doesn’t rise too far beyond mediocrity.
The story of Whispering Willows kicks off with an introduction to the main character, Elena, and her dismay that her father has gone missing. Knowing that he works at Willows Mansion, she decides to venture out and try to find him herself. Of course, her arrival isn’t straight forward and she finds herself falling through the ground and landing in the catacombs surrounding the Willows Mansion. Though isolated, she finds solace through her amulet; a family heirloom that allows the bearer to project themselves in spirit form. With her new-found abilities, Elena must explore the area to find her father and expose a series of gruesome murders along the way.
Despite the intriguing opening, the story never seems to hit the ground running. A few of the encounters with the ghosts can be intriguing, though each one seems to have a stereotypical tragic back story that is difficult to empathise with. Nothing ever really stands out through the four hour tale, a lack of twists and turns through the story leaving everything ending on a bit of a whimper.
The developers have tried to expand upon the lore through a series of easy to find collectibles; each one telling you more about the histories of the ghosts you encounter or even behind the mansion itself. Whilst the extra detail is appreciated, the game still doesn’t offer you enough to care too much about viewing these collectibles.
The big sell of Whispering Willows is the ability to project your spirit form, allowing you to explore unreachable areas of the Metroidvania-style 2D plains you’ll explore. It also allows for interaction with different inanimate objects, along with the many ghosts you encounter in the game. The feature actually works really well for the most part; you’ll need to utilise both the abilities of your astral-projection along with the human form of Elena to progress through the game. The transition is smooth too; the change happens pretty much instantly.
However, despite the strengths of the feature I can’t help but to feel it’s been under-utilised. Whilst most of the puzzle solving in the game is dependant on your use of the spirit form, you’ll often find that you’re just doing the same things over and over again. Everything the game has to offer is seen within the first hour, everything else pretty much consisting of fetch quests or finding a key that unlocks a door. That’s not to say there isn’t quality in some of the puzzle designs; some of the later puzzles require a bit thinking and manage to differentiate the standard formula found in the game. Unfortunately the variety isn’t consistent.
The game is devoid of any combat, although there are moments where you’ll find yourself having to avoid enemy contact. They’re few and far between but they do break away from the standard ‘find item to progress’ approach that makes up the bulk of the game. All the enemies follow predictable patterns of movement though – don’t expect too much of a challenge.
Whilst the puzzles of the game are lacking, the exploration of your forsaken surroundings is quite the treat thanks to the fantastic art style of the game. The 2D environments are amazing, each area perfectly represented through a beautiful hand drawn art style. Environments aren’t devoid of detail; you’ll notice small details like the flickering embers of fireplaces bringing a bit of life to your gloomy surroundings. Be it through the horrendous hedge maze or through the ghastly guest house; Whispering Willows looks fantastic.
Character designs really shine too; each ghost you encounter (or even Elena herself) has a distinct look that makes them really stand out from each other. They’re beautifully animated too; the artists have done a great job, their efforts making playing through the often uninspired game much more endurable.
Something I really appreciated with the art design was how the developers actually managed to make some aspects of the game actually appear frightening; particularly one scene deep in the catacombs. It’s typically difficult to achieve in what is a cartoon styled game, but some scenes were pretty dark and malevolent. Don’t be fooled by the game’s innocent look.
The music fits the tone perfectly; sombre piano pieces play as you explore some of the more haunting areas whilst more desolate areas have more eerie, ambient noises murmur in the background. You wouldn’t expect to find upbeat music in a game like Whispering Willows so it’s perfectly fitting that everything has a more melancholic vibe to it. If I did have one complaint though it would be the small chime that plays during dialogue; it became very wearing through text-heavy areas.
Whispering Willows is a game that has a unique, interesting concept that unfortunately doesn’t end up becoming fully realised. It’s a shame because although the spirit projecting works well, it’s simply under-utilised. The game feels old fast, and without a great narrative to drive them on many players will find themselves quickly becoming bored of their foray into the Willows Mansion. Whilst the fantastic art style make some amends for the uninspired gameplay, it’s not enough to encourage players to buy the game. It’s a shame; a bit more work and Night Light Interactive might have had something pretty special on their hands.
– Fantastic art style
– Ambient music really sets the tone
– Under-utilised spirit projecting
– Boring narrative
– Uninspired gameplay
Format Reviewed: Xbox One