Whispering Willows Review

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
Remember the Ouya? You won't be chastised if you don't. The Android-based pocket sized console made headlines as a crowdfunding trailblazer three years ago. However, for all the hopes from financial backers and thankful words from developers, it didn't amount to much more than a handful of well-received titles among a sea of forgettable ones. One of the select few games that did garner positive scores is Whispering Willows, a story-driven sidescroller set in a haunted mansion. It has since been brought to PC, and just last month arrived on PS4 as well. Lastly, it's on Xbox One now. In my time within the storied walls of the Willows Mansion, I was clued in on two separate story threads: why the mansion was home to so many lost souls, and why the Ouya didn't succeed.

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A motion comic opens the game and quickly inserts you into the story. You play Elena Elkhorn, whose father is caretaker to the Willows Mansion. The lavish home was once famously inhabited by one of the town's original founders and mayors, Wortham Willows. When her father doesn't come home, Elena bolts for the mansion armed with only her dad's coat, which is comically oversized, and a mysterious amulet that he gave to her. She soon finds the amulet gives her the ability of astral projection, which allows her to roam freely among spirits. The mansion, as it turns out, is home to many of these ghosts and that's where the story picks up. Through the use of notes and diary entries, the dark story unfolds, where ghosts share stories of their lives and you work to help them with their unfinished business.

The story in Whispering Willows is its greatest asset, although the visual art is exceptional as well and the game's audio design is effectively moody. Elena isn't as fleshed out as she should be, but with no voice acting in the game beyond grunts or moments of audible pondering, I was surprisingly invested in her search. That's because it touches on subject matter both familiar and not often seen in games. The "unfinished business" angle has long been a staple of ghost stories and is even a real life explanation among those who believe in specters. Whispering Willows couples this plotline with overarching themes of Native American oppression. These back stories were actually more enjoyable than the main thread of Elena's search for her dad, although everything is skillfully connected by the end. The story feels very close to the heart of writer Kyle Holmquist and that heart provides a lot of the game's charm, which makes up for the gameplay that never really challenges you.

Creepiest crowd-surfing ever.Creepiest crowd-surfing ever.

The narrative unfolds slowly for most of the game, which is strange when you consider that a first time playthrough without the use of guides will probably only take you about two hours. If you were to run through it with a guide, you'd easily finish the game under that mark. That's partly because the game's main gameplay mechanic consists of metroidvania level design and retracing of your steps. Like most games of the sub-genre, if you know where to go without hesitation, it can and will be a short experience. Whispering Willows took all of two sittings to complete. I almost never knock a game for being short if it told a story worth experiencing -- it's better than the alternative -- unnecessary filler. However, the last quarter of the game does come on fast and it could have been paced equally to the rest of the game for the best experience.

Elena walks annoyingly slow at times, especially when you begin to run outdoors but can never do the same indoors, save for one very short chase scene. The puzzles are never really hard, often requiring you just to find the right key for the right door, or use your spirit to astrally project and reach places that your corporeal form cannot. There are only a few moments where you can ever reach a game over screen and, when you do, you're just reset to the game's most recent autosave, which might have been just seconds before leaving nearly no penalty whatsoever for failing. Speaking of autosaves, they're very frequent and that's because you're constantly hit with loading screens. Thankfully they never take too long, but when they are as frequent as they are in Whispering Willows it too often creates a stop and start pace that disrupts the game's otherwise effective atmosphere. One particular sequence in a hedge maze was nearly spent in equal parts gameplay and loading screens.

The story being told is rarely a happy one.The story being told is rarely a happy one.

For a portion of the game, it was mistaken for a bad puzzle platformer. After making it through a few areas, it was then that the game became much more at home with other recent story exploration games, a burgeoning genre among indie studios popularized by games like Gone Home and Dear Esther. It does at times feel like a "walking simulator", the derogatory term that many apply for games such as those mentioned that offer only narrative. Like those, Whispering Willows is combat-free and unfolds mostly through the use of the aformentioned notes and diaries. When observed in that light, the slow and largely uneventful gameplay is more acceptable, but still not great. In other games in the genre, you have to really go out of your way to find clues to the story. In Whispering Willows there are almost no areas that you won't visit naturally just by playing the game, leaving the exploration out of the equation.

As mentioned before, the visuals are part of what salvages the game in lieu of intriguing gameplay elements. The whole world looks hand-drawn in the vein of an old cartoon not dissimilar to Scooby-Doo. Paired with the literally whispering winds of the mansion's garden and the eerily silent catacombs and hallways of the house, this makes the game an audio and visual success. The few cutscenes that are in the game don't look nearly as good, but they are so few and far between that they never took away from the game's perfectly dark aesthetic overall.

You're in a haunted mansion and you go down to the cellar? Don't you know the rules?You're in a haunted mansion and you go down to the cellar? Don't you know the rules?

With 19 achievements in the game, the gamerscore comes early and often. Most of them are story-related and the remainders relate to finding certain items hidden in plain sight. There are a trio that also require you to find the logos of the game's developer and publisher. One of these is very easy, one is a bit harder, and the last one is the most missed achievement in the game. Some are still able to be unlocked after you finish the story, but the last of the previously mentioned trio of fourth wall-breaking logos must be obtained at a certain moment in the game. It's a very easy list overall, but unless you want to be stuck with one achievement keeping you from the completion, like me, use a guide.

Summary

With just two hours of content and gameplay that never challenges you, plenty of people will dismiss Whispering Willows and never think twice about it. That's maybe not such a bad thing as it definitely isn't for everybody. It acts as an example as to why the Ouya didn't last. This was one of the better received games in the console's short lifespan and it fails to stand up to a lot of games within its own genre on the major consoles and PC. I do genuinely love the game's message overall, however. It gives a voice to a people so rarely represented in video games and does so within a story that's worth seeing. Despite its dark tone and serious subject matter, one word keeps returning to me when I think back on Whispering Willows, and that's 'charming'. It's flawed, and brief, and unchallenging, but so too is it engaging, and mysterious, and charming. Among so many other lost souls in the Willows Mansion, the ghost of the Ouya lives on.
3 / 5
Positives
  • Story touches on subject matter rarely seen in games
  • Visuals and audio are both excellent
Negatives
  • Gameplay hardly challenges you
  • Cutscenes don't look nearly as good as the game
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent three hours exploring catacombs, getting lost in a hedge maze, and reflecting on imperialism. Along the way, he earned 18 of 19 achievements. A download code was provided by the publisher for this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a lifelong gamer and current Assistant (to the) News Manager on TA. When not playing games, he can be found cheering for a bad football team, playing Batman action figures with his son, or going to concerts with his lover. Days where he does all of those things are his favorite.