Whispering Willows is a beautifully animated 2D horror adventure game in which you control Elena, a young girl in search of her missing father. You’ll embrace your Native heritage and use astral projection to solve puzzles and communicate with the dead, all while uncovering the disturbing truth of the Willows estate and helping wayward spirits along the way.
In her possession is a mystical medallion which allows her to leave her physical body behind, using her spirit form to collect out-of-reach items, activate switches, and see otherwise invisible shadow creatures. I loved the animation when Elena’s spirit would materialize and float about the screen like Child of Light‘s Aurora, or slip through cracks as a misty orb. The developers also did a fantastic job pacing the game, so this function never felt gimmicky or overused, which I’ll admit was an initial concern of mine before diving in.
What’s even more impressive is that Whispering Willows is the first title released by the fledgling Los Angeles-based indie studio, Night Light Interactive. And although they’re inexperienced, it most certainly doesn’t show. Conflict between the American natives and the early white settlers leads in to the horrific happenings at the Willows estate, and everything is so well written that I wouldn’t have guessed it was Night Light‘s first rodeo.
Although nothing is voice acted, the overall quality and flow of its text-only narrative was such a great read that I didn’t really care if it was missing vocalization. As the game’s lead, Elena is a little one-dimensional though. She seemed to read too far in to things almost immediately, like meeting a ghost for the first time, handing them an item, and then commenting on how she really liked them a few minutes later. To be fair, she’s young and naive, and that could very well just be her character.
I always enjoy when a game makes me want to venture off the beaten path in order to get the full story, like Bioshock or Lifeless Planet, for instance. Since Whispering Willows fully relied on in-game documents and interacting with spirits to tell its tale, I made it a point to carefully explore every room in the estate, took every possible route in the garden maze, and tried to leave no stone unturned elsewhere. Even with my thorough sweep of the game, I still managed to overlook a few areas and miss a couple of Steam achievements, which makes me want to replay the game even more.
Visually, character designs are extremely crisp and fluid. I really can’t praise Night Light Interactive‘s art team enough for doing such a fantastic job with Elena, her spirit form, and all of the otherworldly inhabitants in the Willow estate. Whispering Willows also features hand drawn cut-scenes, but their quality wasn’t as high as their in-game counterparts and suffered from constant stuttering. There is also an issue where taking Steam screenshots during a cut-scene would cause it to cancel, but I’m hopeful it’ll be addressed in a future update as the game is less than a week old at the time of this review.
At first glance I figured Whispering Willows would be a point-and-click adventure game, but it’s actually fully controlled with your keyboard; using ASDW or your arrow keys to navigate its 2D environments. Controlling Elena in real-time worked well for the most part, but sometimes she’d get hung up going up or down multiple flights of stairs, but that’s a very minor complaint. Her sluggish movement speed also caused some of the backtracking segments to drag along, which could have been alleviated with a run button. There are certain portions of the game where Elena runs to avoid being attacked, so the mechanic is there, albeit only during scripted events. Still, it would be nice to have that option the entire time.
Whispering Willows also forgoes the adventure standard of item combination and inventory management, which makes for a more narrative focused experience. Adventure purists may be slightly disappointed, but I consider myself a junkie of the genre and I was totally fine with its streamlined approach. You still need to collect specific items in order to cut vines, dig holes, or satisfy the needs of the not-so-recently deceased, but you won’t be rifling through your inventory or doing a bunch of mouse clicking.
With Night Light Interactive going for the real-time approach though, I’m surprised they didn’t include controller support for the PC and Mac releases, especially when it’s available on the OUYA — a controller based console. A controller isn’t crucial for Whispering Willows, as it features no combat or platforming segments, but you can always use third party software like Joy2Key or Xpadder if you absolutely need it. Judging by the Steam forums, controller support is the number one request right now. The developers seem open to include controller support in a future update, but as that takes time and financial resources that most indie devs don’t have the luxury of, I wouldn’t hold your breath. The game plays just fine with a keyboard.
Overall, Whispering Willows is a quality adventure title with excellent writing and a great art style. Its moody atmosphere and ambient soundtrack made exploring the Willows estate thoroughly enjoyable, and I couldn’t have asked for more in an adventure game. I didn’t relate to Elena’s naivety, and her languid movements were bothersome at times, but her ability to astral project was a fun mechanic that never overstayed its welcome. Whispering Willows is not just an impressive maiden voyage for Night Light Interactive, but a highly enjoyable experience for fans of paranormal adventure games.
*This review is based on the game’s PC release via Steam. Whispering Willows is also available on Mac, Linux, and OUYA, but unless we find significant differences in each version, consider this our definitive review.
Bradley Keene is the Executive Editor here at What’s Your Tag?, handling news, reviews, and a bit of our public relations communications. He’s an aspiring video game journalist, a Baltimore native, and a diehard Orioles fan that’s completely obsessed with roguelikes, horror games, and point-and-click adventures. His favorite console is the Dreamcast, favorite game is the original Metroid, and he could watch The Goonies for the rest of his life. Contact him by e-mail at the address above, or follow his insanity on Twitter.