Whispering Willows (Video Game)



Developed by Night Light Interactive

Available on Steam, PS4, PS3, Android, iOS, PS Vita, and WiiU

Suitable for ages 10+

While waiting for my appointed showings of XCOM 2 and Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide at E3 2015, I decided to be a journalist and check out what the IndieCade booth had to offer. An open air showing block cramming in about 40 games into a space roughly the area of half the cafeteria, many of the games being avant- garde butt sniffing simulators and other such peripheral-centric gems made for a claustrophobic experience. But amidst the experimental iPad games and quirky console downloadables, I saw what appeared to be an actual newsworthy title. With stunning visuals and a controller that made sense, Whispering Willows made me stop and take notice.

After some hands on time with Whispering Willows, I had the good fortune of interviewing the Producer of Night Light Interactive, Leif Dahl, which you can find on at the end of the review. I highly recommend you watch it, because I’m gorgeous and Leif is a lovely fellow. Also, you can learn some cool stuff about the game or something.

Color me surprised to find that the next week, we have a review code for their upcoming console release. I hadn’t played it before, so it was cool that I had the chance to ask Leif about the upcoming changes in person: The main character walks faster, and the game is slightly prettier. This should be one of those reviews where I get mad at a game for being a pointless re-release, but it won’t be. There’s a difference between a major company releasing all the DLC and a minor graphics update and calling it an “Enhanced Edition” and an indie game trying to get a bit more exposure on a new system.

I think we need new categories for indie games. Titles like “Puzzle” and “Adventure” don’t really apply to storybook galleries like Dear Esther or Gone Home. There’s a term called “walking simulator” that people use, which is fucking stupid because my walks rarely involve existential revelations about the nature of life and end in my gay sister running away from home. If there were a scale for gameplay-light story games, Whispering Willows would be above The Graveyard and below Ghost Trick. Google it.

Astral projecting young teen and protagonist Elena Elkhorn’s father is missing, and it is up to her to explore the dilapidated estate of antagonist Worthan Willow while talking to enough ghosts and collecting items to save him. Some ghosts are sad, some ghosts are bad; some ghosts are funny, and one ghost is scoring a honey. It’s all pretty straightforward, but with enough backtracking and items opening up new areas to give it hints of Metroidvania.

I’m not against games being narrative endeavors with easy gameplay, but the problem for me is that it doesn’t give me much to talk about. Elena can turn into her ghost form, leaving her body behind. She uses this to talk to spirits and travel through tight spaces. She can possess things and open new passageways. Overall, if there is a hole in a wall, there is a reason to ghost your way through it. If there is a ghost to talk to, chances are it will give you a mission or a hint on how to complete a quest. Other than the occasional part where you have to run away from a dark spirit, that’s pretty much it. There are notes to collect, which is as close to extra content as the game has, but none are so far out of reach as to require a strategy guide.

Where the game shines is in the aesthetics. Lief had stated that he really didn’t think that this was a horror game, but if this isn’t horror, I want to see what kind of fucked up shit he needs to consider something scary. There is a pervasive creepiness to the world, with a force deeply sinister lurking just beneath the surface. The ghosts aren’t themselves scary, but they aren’t the only spirits haunting the manor. Malignant phantoms of varying forms await to spring out at key moments and instill some genuine dread. They predictably spawn at key points, which is disappointing, but offer enough of a shift in tone to be genuinely frightening.

It all comes together to tell a compelling story, but with a weak narrative. Most of the ghosts speak too bluntly about their issues, and it is pretty easy to tell where things are going. While the tale of racial violence and growing desperate insanity is great, the way it is told is a bit ham-handed. It is a bit too step-by-step, spoon-fed without any real challenge to make the revelations rewarding. Like the achievements, it pops up incidentally, a secondary effect of having walked through the game.

Despite the shortcomings, I can see why this holds a high rating on Steam. Its an interesting narrative experience, with a unique protagonist that uses a clever ability to overcome the obstacles of a spooky mansion. I sometimes begrudge games that substitute gameplay for a clever story told from an unfamiliar perspective. I’ll admit, this isn’t my type of game, but I can appreciate what it does. It has great atmosphere, and shows the team’s mastery of tone. I look forward to watching what they can do with a larger team and budget. It’s not going to rock your world or redefine the genre, but for $10 is a good 5 hours of spooky fun.

  • Game
User Rating 3.83 (12 votes)


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