Review: Whispering Willows

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Even though I love video games, I also grew up reading all manner of horror fiction. Splatter punk, demonic possession, supernatural, and gothic horror were all sub genres that helped form my dark and twisted self of today. While I devoured Stephen King as a young teen, it wasn’t until a bit later in college when I learned to appreciate and truly enjoy H.P. Lovecraft’s work. Blending ancient horror with modern themes while isolating the reluctant hero in a depraved and decaying world, nothing tickles my fancy more than being engrossed in the dark recesses of Lovecraft. 

Several video games have attempted to capture the ambience and essence of Lovecraft, but usually they lean too heavily on the horror elements and not enough on the psychological impact. Night Light Interactive’s Whispering Willows, out now on Ouya and PC platforms, mixes the tone and mood of supernatural, psychological horror set in a decaying early-American expansionist mansion with a touch of side-scrolling, puzzle-based adventuring through the eyes of a young, modern heroine, Elena, who is searching for her lost father.

In today’s market of huge blockbusters, 2D adventure games are at slight disadvantage. If there aren’t massive guns making massive explosions, or bloody, ravenous monsters jumping out with fanged jaws, most players don’t want anything to do with a game. When reading is used as the main source of exposition and motivation for moving forward in a game, even more players are likely to be turned away. Yet there is something magical about letting written information fill your mind while absorbing the subtle music cues along with the captivating art style that grabs a hold of your imagination and fills it with truly dark horror. The same stuff that Lovecraft’s work thrives on is the same stuff that makes Whispering Willows successful.

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Moving Elena through dank catacombs in search of her father is one thing, but then to have a shaman spirit teach her how to release her spirit and float through space into small crevices unreachable in physical form is playing on a whole different psychological and spiritual level. Yet that is what Whispering Willows does so well. The catacombs lead to the staff quarters of Wortham Willow’s mansion, which leads ultimately to the mansion itself as well as the garden and grounds surrounding the estate. Each area introduces Elena to spectral ghosts that can talk to Elena’s astrally projected spirit, unfolding a tragic mystery behind the downfall of a proud man. By talking to some of the spirits and finding various notes left around the estate, Elena unravels the cause of Wortham Willow’s spiral down a dark supernatural path. 

The gameplay simply centers upon moving Elena from room to room, looking for clues or objects to interact with to further the story. To help with keeping the story moving forward at all times, any interaction with spirits brings up a brief conversation between Elena and the deceased. Keywords to help clue in on where to go next or which object to find and interact with are always highlighted. If those visual clues aren’t enough, Elena also has a pendant worn around her neck that glows whenever she gets close to an object that offers some sort of interaction. While the clues and interactive objects may be pretty obvious, deductive reasoning on how to apply or use the clues to move the story forward is still required. Which is great, because there would be nothing worse than clicking a button and simply watching everything unfold and feeling like there is no real gameplay or reasoning involved.

Puzzles are fairly standard and will feel familiar to anyone with adventure game experience. Typically, items found in one area must be taken to another area to unlock a clue. Some puzzles are more environmental, meaning a clue is nested in the environment via a picture or the way a statue is holding a spear and the solution to the puzzle is mimicking whatever is found in the environment. Other challenges are more akin to the mechanics of a platformer, which require timing Elena’s movements to avoid being attacked by spiders which travel along the ceiling of the mansion (but from time to time vanish yet are still very deadly). Working through the perfect timing of avoiding instant, invisible death is more frustrating than the slow backtracking from one part of the estate to the other.

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The only downside to this form of interaction is that there are areas in the estate where Elena has more than one pathway to travel. Doorways in the mansion allow for deep exploration, which from time to time can lead to deadends if unlocking a specific door from a different path prior to going through the doorway. Backtracking is the biggest time sink in the game, but in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that bad. Observing and keeping a keen memory of what clues were presented makes playing through Whispering Willows fun. A patch increasing Elena’s movement speed has also been released since I finished playing through the game, allowing her to run while in the areas outside of the mansion. This update helps a lot since there can be a fair amount of traveling around (especially outdoors) while fitting all of the clues together.

My only real complaint is the fact that diary entries and collected notes can be viewed from the main menu, but the cutscenes cannot. I accidentally interrupted several key moments of exposition by trying to utilize the Steam screenshot functionality, which ultimately canceled out pivotal scenes and dropped the game back into the actual gameplay environment. I wouldn’t mind this so much if the cutscenes were re-playable from the menu in the same way that the diary and notes are accessible.

Whispering Willows is a compelling psychological horror adventure steeped in mystery that offers a chance at self-reflection and potential redemption. Slower paced movement adds to the dread surrounding the decaying mansion and allows for a much more mental pondering of what Elena may next encounter. Tapping into the ancient supernatural powers tickled my love of Lovecraft in a way many horror games can’t. Fans of adventure games would be wise to spend some time helping Elena find her father and solve the mystery of Wortham Willows.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Creepy atmosphere
+ Psychological horror reminiscent of Lovecraft
+ Interesting Spirit mode manipulation and puzzle solving

Cons:
– No way to replay cutscenes
– Frustrating semi-invisible, death-dealing spiders

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC via Steam, also available on OUYA, Mac and Linux
Publisher: Night Light Interactive
Developer: Night Light Interactive
Release Date: 7/9/2014
Genre: Adventure/Horror
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.