“I see dead people…”
Well, I don’t, but Elena Elkhorn, the main character of the puzzle/adventure game Whispering Willows does. Thanks to the magical powers of an old family heirloom, Elena has the ability to speak with the spirits of the deceased. And as she enters the grounds of the Willows Mansion, she’s going to quickly discover there are more ghosts than normal at her father’s place of employ.
Elena’s father has been missing for sometime. Unable to take it any longer, one night she grabs his old jacket along with the family amulet and rushes to the mansion of Wortham Willows, where her father works as a grounds keeper. What she finds is a decrepit old house… along with ghost after ghost after ghost. Something bad went down here, and Elena needs to speak with the spirits to piece everything together.
The situation makes me feel like I arrived at end of a Shakespeare play; everyone is dead but the reasons why are unknown. It’s an interesting place to begin a story, and a great place for an adventure game. However, I felt like the story in Whispering Willows never fully develops, and the slow pacing with an uneven story left me feeling unsettled. Then, just as it was getting good, it was over.
Whispering Willows is a 2-D, side-scrolling adventure game that allows you to explore the grounds of an old mansion. You get to rummage through a number of locations, from the guest house, gardens, and even the family crypt. Whenever Elena comes into contact with something in the spirit world, her amulet glows and her spirit can leave her body to interact with the other ghosts. You get to speak to a variety of different servants who once worked at the mansion before they met their untimely demise. Through them, bits and pieces of what happened begin to be revealed. This spirit form is also handy when trying to bypass locked doors by slipping through cracks or holes in the walls.
To progress further through the story you need to aid these ghosts with their unfinished business. These come mainly in the form of fetch quests. There are some minor challenges throughout the game, but nothing too difficult that will push you into frustration. It’s a story driven game with a few “gaming” elements tossed in to try and keep things interesting. Everything is very straight forward, and the chances of getting lost or confused are minimal.
The controls are simple since there are only a few actions you can perform. Buttons are assigned to interact with game objects, switch into the spirit form, and bring up the inventory. The shoulder buttons can be used to make Elena run, but only when she’s outside (no running in the house kids). Otherwise she will move at an alarmingly slow pace. This makes moving through the world a bit of a chore.
Whispering Willows isn’t a very long game and would probably be even shorter if Elena didn’t crawl across the screen at such a slow pace. Running can quicken things up a bit, but you’re limited as to where and when that can take place. I get the feeling that this is deliberate in order to build atmosphere and provide a layer of suspense to the story. For me it only had the effect of pulling me out of the experience as it became a chore to move from area to area.
Pacing aside, the real disappoint in the game is that just as the story gets extremely interesting, it’s over. The slow build up to the story’s climax takes far too long, and then inversely, the moment of reveal happens so quickly that it’s shocking when it’s over.
I was hoping for more adventure or exploration in the game. Since everything is very linear, there’s little left for the player to try and figure out on his own. Interacting with everything you can and talking to every spirit will get you through with no problems.
Thankfully the game’s art is attractive and provides a pleasant backdrop for the events as they unfold. It’s not my favorite, but I can’t fault it either. The world isn’t very big, but what has been created looks very nice, especially in the background environments. The music is also… pleasant. I know, I’m damning it with praise. It’s mellow, haunting, piano heavy, and like everything else in the game is so slow it’s almost lulling me to sleep.
The quest to help Elena Elkhorn find her father and discover the mysteries of Wortham Willow’s mansion may not be long, but it can feel like it at times. There are a number of moments when things briefly pick up, but overall the game just falls a bit flat. It ends with a bang, but unfortunately it’s not satisfying enough to justify the rest of the experience.
Whispering Willows is a… pleasant game that has hints of a decent story, but in the end is mostly forgettable.