Combining puzzles with exploration, Whispering Willows from indie studio Night Light Interactive ignites your imagination with its ghostly storyline and haunting soundtrack before blowing out the candles and leaving you scratching your head at its simplistic puzzles and plodding gameplay.
In Whispering Willows, players step into the role of Elena Elkhorn, a young lady in search of her father (the groundskeeper of Willow’s Estate) who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Elena starts her search by scouring the grounds around the mansion before falling into a hole, which leads to a bum-clenching opening sequence deep underground in the catacombs as she creeps past coffins and explores every dark nook and cranny for a way to get out.
In this horror-themed side-scrolling adventure, Elena is on the hunt for clues to her father’s disappearance as she moves across a 2D plane. Though action is restricted to either moving Elena left and right or up and down (through doors or down staircases), Night Light has done a good job at creating a decent sense of scale with multiple, multi-tiered environments (hand-drawn in an eye-pleasing graphic novel art-style) to explore, as well as plenty of other characters to interact with.
As Elena searches for clues around the mansion, the characters she bumps into appear in the form of ghostly apparitions that drip-feed you backstory and build on the history of the estate, bringing you ever closer to unravelling the mystery of your father’s disappearance. Without any voice-acting in the game, the narrative unfolds via collectible notes, diary extracts and interactions with these ghosts; and it all builds up rather nicely with a story that kept us suitably intrigued right up until the satisfying conclusion.
In terms of gameplay though, Whispering Willows is a mixed bag. One of the better game mechanics is that Elena can also transform into a ghost and use a combination of her human and spirit form to solve puzzles. The magic happens due to the powerful amulet around her neck, passed down by her father, which glows when she’s in near contact with a ghostly spirit, or when she’s in trouble. Elena can transform into a ghostly flying hawk at any time with a tap of the touchpad, which allows you to chat with other ghouls (which only the hawk can see), fit through small cracks to access places that her human body can’t (allowing her to interact with the likes of switches to open doors), or move objects out of the way to clear a path to the next room.
This switching of characters allows you to find keys and other objects that help you progress through the game, and it works most effectively during the instances where Elena and her ghostly spirit need to work in tandem with each other to solve puzzles, or even escape when things get a little hairy. Nevertheless, it’s never really that mentally taxing to solve any of these puzzles as glowing spots handily indicate the areas where you’re required to change into your ghostly apparition, while the rumble of the DualShock 4 lets you know that there’s another ghostly character to interact with nearby.
And that’s really where Whispering Willows starts to fall apart somewhat. The puzzle-solving is either a little too easy, or it gets a little stale too soon. One quest, for example, sees you having to find the body of a lost spirit so he can return back home. Elena solves this type of puzzle by finding objects to add to her inventory and then either returns them to the ghost who wanted them, or has to bring them to another location — perhaps finding a spade that enables her to dig out a secret pathway, or finding a bucket that allows her to descend into the well for further exploration. Ultimately, this means you spend a fair amount of time backtracking and going to and from locations you’ve already visited time and time again. The fact that Elena walks so slowly (she can sprint while outside, but not when inside) doesn’t help matters.
The real issue is that there’s no real sense of challenge in these tasks because you know from the hints in the notes and conversations that you read where to find that object. It’s simply a case of getting there and remembering how to get back. Thankfully, the superb hand-drawn artwork in the game makes this slightly less of a dull task, but still the game could have been made more immersive with better inventory-based puzzles rather than us simply carrying out menial tasks for ghosts, who often send you on these mundane errands to search for objects.
That’s not to say that Whispering Willows doesn’t have its highlights. While some puzzles don’t always hit the nail on the head, we did enjoy unravelling the story and had fun playing the sections where you have to switch to the ghostly apparition and navigate through small passages to help Elena out. And audio is superb throughout too, cleverly helping to maintain a level of trepidation and overall spookiness as haunting piano solos and creaking floorboards give way to ghostly murmurs and startling crescendos as you explore for clues. It’s also great to see that Night Light has made use of the DualShock 4 speaker to bring that audio right into your living room and capture some of the atmosphere you’d expect from a horror-themed title.
With its 2D side-scrolling gameplay and rather cute, doe-eyed main character Elena, Whispering Willows’ creepy adult theme is somewhat quashed by its charming graphic novel-style aesthetic — despite the best efforts of a superbly haunting soundtrack and creepy audio effects. While the narrative ticks along nicely enough to keep you immersed, the easy puzzles and slow-paced backtracking does little to invigorate its plodding, unchallenging gameplay.