Not quite spirited away
As Whispering Willows begins, a young girl named Elena has run off against her mother?s wishes to the once majestic Willows Mansion. Elena?s had a horrible premonition about the fate of its groundskeeper, her father, and she arrives to find the manor in shambles and strange apparitions haunting its grounds. One of those ghosts is Flying Hawk, who teaches Elena a power that?ll become one of the major gameplay aspects in Whispering Willows: the ability for her spirit to leave her body and travel around on its own.
Elena?s initial goal is simple: figure out what?s happened at Willows Mansion, find her father, and, with any luck, get out alive. Her adventure plays out as a 2D side-scroller, but along the way, she?ll find doors in either the foreground or background that can take her to another section of the current location. As her journey leads her through the underground crypt, to the garden maze and guest house, to Willows Mansion itself, Elena will need to use her spirit power to overcome the various obstacles that stand in her way. Her ethereal self can float over untraversable floors, fit through tight spaces, or possess objects and switches to unlock doors or manipulate important items.
There?s another benefit that she gains from the form, however: the ability to see and talk to the various ghosts around the manor?s grounds. Something has happened to cause more than a few spirits to get trapped in this place, and by helping them with their unfinished business so that they can move on, Elena will learn more about not only what?s happened at Willows Mansion, but to her father as well.
When exploring the game?s various areas and fulfilling those quests, Whispering Willows has a certain charm to it. Part of that charm comes from the game?s art style, which crafts everything from characters to background environments in a cartoony yet detailed look. As someone forged in the days of 8- and 16-bit sprites, it can still throw me off to have 2D visuals that aren?t just giant, chunky pixels. For a game that went the route of higher-resolution sprites crafted from a very small team, though, I think Whispering Willows looks great. That?s helped by the animation, which?other than some small rough spots, such as when Elena turns to face the other way?matches up nicely with the graphics.
While it isn?t as polished as the the visuals, Whispering Willows? story kept me interested most of the way through. As Elena works to uncover what happened to her father and his place of employment, some revelations come through conversations with the apparitions, while others are found in journal pages scattered across the game?s world. Although the game?s narrative is never really scary?or even disturbing on, say, a Corpse Party level?there are still some really messed-up things going on here, and finding out the answers to what happened and why kept me interested most of the way through.
The problem is, nearly everything else about the game fails to live up to the same quality level as those two elements. Whispering Willows began its life as a Kickstarter project targeted at the Ouya, and it definitely feels like a studio?s first under-funded attempt at game creation. There really are some interesting ideas here?Elena?s ability to split off into a spirit, helping the various ghosts find peace, the puzzle and action elements that show up, the overall exploration?but all of them feel like demos for gameplay concepts instead of actual, fleshed-out experiences.
Elena?s spirit form is woefully underutilized, especially in terms of what could have been done with possessing objects or simply being away from Elena?s body in the first place. The ghost?s stories are usually solved with little more than another fetch quest, and the sense of accomplishment and weight of freeing these souls could have provided so much more of an emotional impact on players. The puzzles, which should have been the main focus of the challenge, are way too rare, even if the few that are present are pretty decent.
Speaking of challenge, the game?s few ?survive or die? action scenes are not only annoying?because this isn?t a game meant for action and/or stealth?but feel very out of place given how the rest of the game unfolds. Finally, the exploration relies too much on running back and forth between locations you?ve been to before, which can be especially frustrating for those areas of the game where the backgrounds look so similar.
As it stands, Whispering Willows comes off like an early version of a game produced to keep players patient until the final build is ready for release. And that?s a real shame, because I wanted to like Night Light Interactive?s first release. Its heart is absolutely in the right place, and in those moments that everything comes together, it?s an engrossing adventure that shows so much promise. If only those moments didn?t come so few and far between.
|Developer: Night Light Interactive ? Publisher: LOOT Interactive ? ESRB: T – Teen ? Release Date: 06.30.2015|
Whispering Willows offers up some interesting gameplay ideas behind its tale of a young girl communicating with spirits as she desperately searches for her father. It?s unfortunate, then, that Night Light Interactive wasn?t able to flesh out most of them, leaving its side-scrolling adventure feeling unfinished for most of the way through.
|The Good||A beautiful art and animation style mixed with some interesting gameplay concepts.|
|The Bad||Few of the game?s ideas ever really kick into gear, making the entire adventure feel underdeveloped.|
|The Ugly||The brutal ways some of the game?s ghosts met their demise.|
|Whispering Willows is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PS Vita, Ouya, PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by LOOT Interactive for the benefit of this review.|