Whispering Willows Review
Talk to ghosts, uncover the mystery, but don't run in the house
Whispering Willows is the story of native American descendant, Elena Elkhorn who has found out that her father, a grounds keeper at the infamous Willow Mansion, has gone missing and it is up to her to find him. She discovers that she has the ability to turn herself into a spectral form to commune with the dead who still roam the premises. The game doesn't do an especially good job of setting up this premise before handing control over to the player, opening with a very quick sequence of still animations with very little context. Fortunately, it doesn't take long for the player to figure out what they are doing and why.
Almost immediately, the player is handed the keys to the primary game mechanic, Spectral Interaction, which allows the character to pass through cracks in walls, manipulate switches, reveal deadly astral creatures, and most importantly, drive the story forward. Between talking to these lost spirits and collecting a number of conveniently placed notes, the world quickly starts to gain clarity.
In terms of its gameplay, Whispering Willows is pretty simple. You will mostly be traversing back and forth between the various areas of the game world, collecting items that unlock the next area. These items range from basic keys that unlock doors to the personal effects of the spirits that inhabit the area, causing them to give off an emotional reaction that progresses the story. The game's system logic remains largely the same throughout, but it's the context the logic is placed in that makes the game feel more personal. There are also a few puzzles sprinkled in to give the player pause and make them feel like participants in the game's events rather than passive viewers. None of these puzzles are all that complicated as the only time I found myself stumped was one instance where I didn't explore a particular room for a clue in spectral form. The environment gave no indication that I should have, after doing so at every point in the game prior to that, but that was probably an intentional design choice.
The only real issue I had with the game is its inconsistency in letting the player make Elena run. For some reason, the designers felt it was only appropriate to have the Player Character be able to run in the game's "overworld" but not in the interiors. One could make an argument for aesthetic value, seeing as how you are traveling through the halls of haunted houses and running could very well kill the tension. However, there is a good enough amount of backtracking that has to be done to reach your objectives and speeding through areas I've already seen would have been a nice touch, but it's not earth shattering that running isn't allowed indoors.
Whispering Willows' art direction is predicated on its character design, namely in its NPC's. Most of the NPC's you will be talking to in the game are ghosts, and some of them have died in horrendous fashion. Each one of these characters effectively carries their backstory in their appearance in that their design reflects how they died. One ghost may have a knife stuck in their eye socket (ouch), another may have a noose around their neck and others don't even realize they're dead. This subtext adds a layer of believability that really helps to sell the characters' trials and tribulations.
In truth, Whispering Willows will probably appeal to a very niche crowd. It can walk the line between game and interactive narrative a little harder than other games, but it is a legitimately unique experience worth having. Taken for what it is, in order to get the most out of the game, you do have to read, which is sure to turn some people off. But if you keep your mind open to the idea of reading in a video game, you will be treated to a very believable and intricately crafted narrative with a cast of memorable characters that despite their relatively short stay, will leave a mark on you.