Developed by Night Light Interactive
Published by Night Light Interactive
Available on PC, PS4, PS Vita
Originally released on Steam back in mid-2014 following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Whispering Willows’ humble beginnings are apparent from the get go. There’s no voice acting, no grand production values. Cut scenes are composed of static images and the whole thing barely lasts three hours. It’s game design on a diet, stripped of the fat and distilled into a single afternoon experience. And it’s all the better for it.
A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cutscene sets up the tale: Elena Elkhorn is on the hunt for her father, gone missing somewhere in Willows Mansion. Armed with a magical pendant that allows her to transform into a spirit; this allows her to fit through cracks and reach places her human body couldn’t. It also lets her possess certain objects in the environment – usually door-release switches and the like – and as the game progresses it quickly opens up into something resembling Metroidvania-lite.
Moving through the mansion and its surrounding grounds, you clock the places you’ll need to return to later. Here’s the well, but there’s no bucket. There’s the conservatory, but you’ll need something to cut through the vines. The whole thing is wrapped up like a lovely 2D anime, and the gentle puzzles never get in the way of exploration or story. Indeed, the most confusing thing about Whispering Willows is its bizarre lack of map. It’s not much of an issue at first, but as the number of locations grow and you uncover the key to a door you passed whilst navigating the catacombs an hour and a half ago, it’s rather annoying.
The controls can prove problematic at times, too. Trying to squeeze your spirit through tight cracks or even line yourself up to climb a ladder can often take a few attempts to get right, and preventing the player from being able to run when indoors is rather baffling. The few times you’re forced to face off against weird spider-enemies never really work well, and you’re more likely to get past them via trial and error as opposed to actual strategy.
But really, these are never anything more than irritants, because Whispering Willows gets so much else right. The atmosphere is perfectly pitched, the animation giving off a wonderful cartoon-creepy vibe, and whilst the immediate plot is a little clichéd, the notes and diary entries that are scattered around for Elena to find tell a fascinating history of the mansion. For the real story here isn’t the one being told, it’s the one being discovered. It’s the tale of Wortham Willows, determined to build a new life for himself despite what the local populace think of him, and the macabre lengths he’ll go to secure his future. The ghosts of those from his story remain trapped in the present, and only by solving their centuries-old problems can they find peace.
And that’s Whispering Willows. It’s a short game, and its simple puzzles won’t tax your brain, but it nails its aesthetics and uses the Metroidvania formula to squeeze every ounce out of its limited budget, telling a pretty great story as it does. Honestly, as you traipse back and forth across the mansion grounds, uncovering secret rooms and reading forgotten diary entries, as you piece together what happened to those who lived a hundred years before, the biggest vibe you might get is that of Gone Home – and for this reviewer, that’s high praise indeed.