Whispering Willows is an aesthetically pleasing 2D adventure game that’s a bit light on inventory management and puzzle solving, but features a beautifully written tale of tragedy, loss, and murder–with a paranormal twist.
As a young girl named Elena you set off to find your missing father, who just so happens to be a caretaker at the local Willows Estate. It’s a spooky little place with a horrific past that’s still inhabited by the ghosts of its former residents, and you’ll learn all about it as you communicate with them during your adventures using astral projection. Elena’s clearly not your average girl, and 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. Imagine my surprise when this didn’t turn out to feel gimmicky or annoying!
“It’s not just an impressive maiden voyage for Night Light Interactive, but a highly enjoyable experience for fans of the paranormal and things that go bump in the night.”
In the past, it was common for adventure games to be of the point-and-click variety, but Whispering Willows is controlled in real-time–similar to other modern adventures like Murdered: Soul Suspect, The Walking Dead, or Life is Strange. It 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 as a full time college student who doesn’t have a lot free time, the game’s streamlined approach made it an ideal candidate to kill a weekend with. For the record, my first play through only lasted about 2 hours–roughly the equivalent of one episode of most modern episodic adventure games–which was enough to weave an engrossing tale.
You won’t be rifling through your inventory when it comes time to unlock the next door, but you’ll still need to collect specific items in order to cut vines, dig holes, or satisfy the needs of the not-so-recently deceased. There’s plenty of notes and items tucked away, dealing with adult themes like sexual affairs, the occult, and racism, which provide a deep understanding of the world created by Night Light Interactive. If you’re after a good story, you’ve come to the right place.
Whispering Willows is actually quite easy, featuring no combat and only a handful of ways to die. It also follows the tired adventure formula of collecting items, backtracking, and repeating the process throughout the course of the game. I’ll admit that I groaned on my third trip back to the crypt, but the map is confined enough that it’s not an arduous process by any means. Even the lack of an in-game map was a non-issue, and I’m notoriously piss poor at navigation in video games. The one aspect of the game that I just couldn’t get in to though was Elena herself.
As the game’s lead, Elena is a little one-dimensional and I found it hard to connect to such a young, naive tweenager. She doesn’t flinch at a ghost that’s been used as a butcher knife pin cushion, or another with a noose around their neck, whereas I, a 34-year old male, would have gone running and screaming in the opposite direction without hesitation. She’s not a deeply written character with a supernatural gift, like Max from Life is Strange, or a child-turned-survivor like Clementine in The Walking Dead series. Aside from her ability to astral project, Elena is largely a forgettable character. Perhaps there just wasn’t enough time to develop her over the course of 2 hours? I’d hate to agree with that, as the remainder of the cast is pretty well fleshed out. She’s determined, care free, and only wants to save her father, which is about as much depth as your typical anime heroine. From a design perspective though, I have absolutely zero complaints.
“Its moody atmosphere, hidden lore items, and ambient soundtrack made exploring the Willows Estate thoroughly enjoyable, and I couldn’t have asked for more in an adventure game.”
Character designs are crisp and fluid, and I don’t think I can praise Night Light‘s art team enough for doing such a bang up job with Elena, her spirit form’s animation, and all of the otherworldly inhabitants within the Willows Estate. The same can’t be said about the game’s small handful of cut-scenes though, which are of noticeably lower quality and suffer from slight drops in framerate; not to mention their odd resolution which reduces them to about half of my TV screen. Ghosts are visually diverse, with standouts including a witty man with his head twisted around (insert “my neck of the woods” joke here), and a ghastly piano player in search of his missing music notes. There’s a nice variety of areas to explore as well, like a garden maze full of possessed hedge monsters, a corpse filled crypt, a disheveled guest house, and, of course, the mansion itself.
The game’s moody atmosphere, hidden lore items, and ambient soundtrack made exploring the Willows Estate thoroughly enjoyable, and I couldn’t have asked for more in an adventure game. It’s not just an impressive maiden voyage for Night Light Interactive, but a highly enjoyable experience for fans of the paranormal and things that go bump in the night.
Recommended for fans of: Adventure games like Life is Strange, The Walking Dead, Murdered: Soul Suspect, Wolf Among Us, Claire, Home
*This review is based entirely on the Xbox One version of Whispering Willows, which is also available on Playstation 4, PS Vita, Steam, iOS, Android, Wii U, and OUYA. By and large it’s the same as any other version, complete with its own set of Xbox achievements to unlock.