When I first heard of Whispering Willows, I was expecting a title that would give me nightmares, would have my palms sweating and would only be played during the daylight hours. Billed as a horror themed adventure title, strangely my initial opinions never came to fruition.
For Whispering Willows is in no way scary, however it does bring a superb tale that just needs to be experienced.
You play as Elena, a young girl on the search for her long lost father, a groundsman at a old mansion. Set out in side scrolling fashion, Elena cannot jump, she cannnot climb and she very rarely runs anywhere. Instead she wanders along, at her own pace taking in all the glories of a haunted land, with bits and bobs from yesteryear constantly pushing her mind back to a time long gone. With little in the form of platforming being present, Elena will make her way around the both the interior and the grounds of the mansion, through a secret garden maze and deep down into dark and mysterious catacombs, as she searches for her father.
But Elena has a secret. Thanks to a powerful amulet, she can project her spirit outside of her body, swooping gracefully through the air as Whispering Willows takes a turn for the better. Whilst in this spirit form, she can squeeze through the tightest of gaps, possess and move items in order to help her soulful body traverse the areas and meet other spirits who will help Elena out on her mission. Before they will do so though, Elena needs to help them all out, undertaking missions and helping them become at ease with both the good and bad things they have done in their previous lives.
With a diary and note taking system that helpfully points out Elenas next move, ensuring that any missions she needs to embark on are easy to find, basic to solve and simple enough to complete, there is never anything in Whispering Willows that is ever too taxing. You will however need to use both Elena’s spiritual side and her physical body to overcome the obstacles and puzzles that are in her way, but the integration between the two works wonderfully with a flash and vibrate of the magical amulet ensuring that you never miss an important moment.
There is no map in place, instead making sure the player relies on memory alone as to the best route to take. This can sometimes be a little tricky, especially if you decide to split the four hours or so it takes to complete across a number of different sessions. For this reason, there is a fair bit of traipsing back and forth as you try and work out which part of the small world you need to visit next. At times this can get a little tiresome but for the most part, as long as you investigate everything and anything, ensuring Elena jots down all important notes in her diary, then you should be just about fine. A pen and paper to hand wouldn’t go amiss though…especially when navigating your way through the Garden Maze.
There is also no speech in Whispering Willows, instead seeing any conversations that Elena embarks upon come in the form of pop up dialogue boxes. Whilst you are chatting away and learning more of the back story from the ghostly characters, these work fine and are well placed but it would have been nice to see some real voice work take place. Similarly, any interaction with objects – both as a young girl and in her spectral form, see Elena’s thoughts pop up throughout.
Whilst the visuals are of a decent standard, it’s the music that accompanies Elena’s story that really moves Whispering Willows on a level. Well paced and extremely well structured, it helps integrate you into the world of this young girl brilliantly, picking up pace when need be and seemingly deafening the player when the time comes to set the mood.
Whispering Willows isn’t a particularly long game, nor is it too difficult to complete. In fact, apart from a trek around the Garden Maze that is a little longer than need be, everything found in Elena’s story is straightforward enough. And it’s that simplicity combined with only a few hours of actual gametime which brings the whole experience down a notch as the brilliantly deep, evolving story finishes just as things really get moving. Even the main selling point, that of seeing Elena in spirit form isn’t used near on enough.
Night sweats and dreams of the surreal are the furthest things from your mind when you play Whispering Willows!
In fact, it’s all quite pleasant…in a strange way. Even when talking to dead people!