Whispering Willows from Nightlight Interactive puts you in the shoes of Elena Elkhorn, an adolescent girl searching for her father. The side-scrolling puzzle-solver pits you against evil ghosts, invisible terrors, and map-spanning brain-teasers in your quest to locate your missing dad. Your father, John Elkhorn, is the groundskeeper for the Willows Manor, an ancient and crumbling mansion rife with history. The man who built the mansion, Mr. Willows himself, was said to be a generous man who founded your small, West coast town. But not all meets the eye. When your father goes missing, you sense something is amiss, throw on your dad’s favorite jacket, and your family heirloom talisman, and head down to the mansion alone.
Elena isn’t a crossbow-toting demon slayer, nor a Van Helsing with a thirst for ectoplasm, just a scared preteen. But she does possess a secret weapon: she is the direct descendant of a spiritually powerful Native American shaman, giving her the ability to shed her body and roam the world as a spirit. You can use this ability to navigate places where your clumsy meatsack can’t, like through tiny holes in the wall, as well as being able to possess inanimate objects and reposition them. Going sans corpus also allows you to communicate with the scores of friendly ghosts roaming the Willows estate, each one creatively mutilated for your viewing pleasure, and most possess a deep and interconnecting story.
Like this guy with the back issues.
The puzzles alone aren’t all too difficult – they’re really only a vehicle to drive the story, which is deep and layered. Only a few managed to stump me when I occasionally forgot to talk to a vital character, or didn’t quite search a room thoroughly enough. It wasn’t the challenge that kept me playing, however. The real reward is in discovering the stories of all the ghosts you encounter. There are no golden rings or power pellets in this game. The collectibles are the notes and diary scraps you collect around the manor that give you important tidbits and perspectives from several characters, including Mr. Willows, your father, and even your shaman ancestor.
The game is very well animated. The feature that really gives the game soul is how Elena wears her heart on her sleeve. She visually gets the jitters when she’s scared and cracks jokes when she feels safe. Something I thought was annoying at first, but later realized was quite clever was the lack of a run button. Most of the game is spent at a methodical walking pace, as one would if contemplating a logic puzzle while not being chased by the vengeful spirits of the damned, but when Elena gets scared, she’s more than capable of hauling ass on her own.
This scene is made even more unsettling when you find out why it happened.
One of the few downsides of note is that the art style and themes are somewhat conflicting. At times, the game is quite childish and whimsical, and at other times almost comically gruesome. Contrasting heart-felt, doe-eyed Disney dialogue with the gritty historical wool of a smallpox blanket. I feel that if they had chosen one extreme or the other, the game would have really excelled, but right now it’s stuck in an odd limbo where it’s a little under-challenging for an adult audience, but a little too dark and macabre to let your kids play alone.
Again, though, what made the game shine for me was the animation, the ambiance, and the storytelling. Without these things, the game would have been alright, but the extra mile the developers went really shows through in the end product. Whispering Willows isn’t perfect – the pace is slow and the cliches are abundant – but its beautiful presentation and thoughtful narrative make up for any flaws. Whispering Willows is available on both PC and OUYA.
- Great storytelling
- Excellent animation
- Fun creepy art style
- Easy puzzles
- Confusing target audience
- Those damn demon spiders