Horror stories often come in many shapes and sizes in the media. Whether it be the old-school Universal Pictures creature features, or more modern fare, such as The Walking Dead, macabre sights are all around us. The world of gaming offers similar examples, as the action-heavy Resident Evil franchise is a completely different beast from the scare-a-second world of Outlast. While not offering the frights seen in those titles, Night Light Interactive’s Whispering Willows is at least a spiritual relative.
A classic tale of haunted house exploration, Whispering Willows centers on teenage sleuth Elena Elkhorn. In search of her missing father, Elena travels to his last known location: the creepy Willows Estate. This is despite the fact that it looks like no one has lived there in centuries, which makes me wonder why her father was working there. I guess to keep up appearances?
Anyway, in order for Elena to reach her father, she will need to help the shambling ghosts roaming the land. Normally this would be a near impossible task, but thanks to the green amulet she wears around her neck, Elena has the ability to astral project. While in her ghost form, she can speak to the spirits who direct her around the estate in search of clues and hidden rooms.
While suitably creepy in parts, I wish Whispering Willows had stuck mainly to the plot thread of Elena looking for her dad. That’s a hook by itself, and with more time spent developing the two, as well as the main villain, it could have been something special. What Night Light Interactive should have done is played up the culture clash from Mr. Willows and the fictional Native American tribe Kwantako. There’s an interesting story there about the differences between the two cultures, and how it ties into Elena and her abilities, but it isn’t developed enough to be worth praising.
Instead, by cramming in various ghosts and spirits, the plot never gets around to developing any of the characters. There are diaries and notes that can be collected around the estate, but they aren’t terribly interesting. Some of the characters don’t even get the decency of having diaries, so you’re sometimes just helping out generic NPCs. That may fly in a full-fledged release, but in a game that runs less than five hours, that’s a bit of a disappointment.
Things are equally straight-forward from a gameplay perspective, as Elena spends a majority of the brief quest seeking out different clues and artifacts. Divvied up into different chapters, Elena typically helps out a different ghostly character per chapter. One chapter has her searching for a music sheet for a musician, while another has her looking for clues in an Irish man’s murder. Outside of a few spirit realm baddies (ghouls and demon scorpions), there aren’t many enemies for you to battle, making this very much a game about exploration.
Elena can find a fair amount of notes just in the physical realm, but a vast majority of the important information needs to be discovered by her spirit form. With the press of a button, she can send her spirit out of her body, which can then get through previously inaccessible locations. Being in ghost form also allows Elena to speak with the deceased, as well as the ability to possess various objects. So, if you’ve ever wanted to possess a knife or a switch, here’s your chance.
Unfortunately, with all of the running around Elena has to do, most of Whispering Willows feels like one big fetch quest. You are constantly sent to and from, looking for whatever object is needed to sate the some new ghost’s appetite. And since you can only run when you are outside of a building, Elena is stuck slowly plodding through each room looking for a new piece of the mystery.
The most frustrating example of this is seen in the hedge maze portion of the title, which has you running into several different areas, looking for three different flowers. I’m not sure if Night Light Interactive thought this was a puzzle, because it’s definitely not a brainteaser. You’re not solving any great riddle, you’re just moving from room to room, albeit outside instead of in.
There are a handful of different puzzles for Elena to conquer, but most of them rely on just looking around your environment. One area has you moving around the weapon of a suit of armor in order to match an image, while another has you switching on different lenses on a telescope to match a drawing. These are technically puzzles, yes, but they offer little challenge. It’s frustrating because with the astral projection ability, there could have been more clever puzzles implemented. Instead, the most action you’ll get with the ghost is possessing a knife to bring it to your physical form.
It’s a shame that the majority of Whispering Willows is such a drag, because I’m quite smitten with how the title looks. The colorful 2D graphics do an excellent job of crafting a spooky and layered environment, with the Willows Mansion being a particular stand out, as the multi-leveled building is full of details and truly seems as massive as it appears to be. Individual detail has been given to each of the deceased characters you come across. Each ghost not only glows with a ghastly hue, but is also drawn based on how they perished. One guy has a snapped neck, while another is chopped partially in-half. In fact, the memorable designs are arguably the scariest aspect of the title.
The spookiness isn’t limited to just sights, though, as Night Light Interactive did a great job crafting a suiting creepy soundtrack. Built mostly around sparse piano arrangements and the sound of footsteps, the audio is able to consistently build tension around your travels. While it is a major feature of the PlayStation 4, I did get a little annoyed with the sound bites that play through the DualShock 4 controller. They were a little too loud, and while I understand how they could help with finding clues, most of the clues can be spotted with your own two eyes.
Whispering Willows seems like an idea that would work better as a film or cartoon, rather than a videogame. The hand-drawn visuals already have the look of a cartoon, while the issues with the plot could be tied up better through a different medium. As a game, though, it struggles to find its footing. The plodding gameplay relies too heavily on fetch quests to truly get excited over, while the story, despite being quite brief, spreads itself too thin.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
Despite the colorful graphics and excellent audio, Whispering Willows' plodding gameplay and under-developed plot make it hard to recommend.