Whispering Heebie Jeebies
Elena Elkhorn is a young girl with a special ability. Using a shamanic amulet, she can project her spirit outside her body. Handy for shoplifting in TJ Maxx or, in Elena’s case, very handy for locating her missing father. Whispering Willows is a 2D horror adventure set in a spooky old mansion. Elena’s dad has disappeared and she must search the mansion and its grounds to find him and solve the mystery of Mr Wortham Willows and the ghosts that haunt his old house.
The first thing to mention about Whispering Willows is the atmosphere. Spooky doesn’t even begin to describe it. Shadowy rooms, slow creeping gameplay, and a story that carefully peels away details to reveal a dark and horrible history. This game is all about the pacing. There’s no scurrying about, jumping, leaping and swinging from the rafters, and despite the cartoony graphics, the game has a quietly serious tone. The story unfolds not through cut scenes but through collectables. Elena must find and pick up notes as she searches Willows Mansion. Each note, written by different ghosts, progresses the story, although not necessarily in a strictly linear way. The game sets up the rough order of discovery of these notes in such a way that the mystery unfolding is incredibly engaging. Linking the story with the collectables in this manner is a tiny stroke of genius. There’s no find, click, ignore, find, click ignore. Every note matters and the story is well written, thoroughly enjoyable and delightfully sickening.
The gameplay mechanics that accompany the story fit the game very well. When inside the mansion or any of its outbuildings, Elena cannot run, which is exactly what you want to do when there are ghosties in the vicinity. Ahhh, tension! When it seems she can go no further Elena can push her spirit from her body. Her real body hangs limply in a way that is nicely disturbing and you take control of her floating spirit. Floaty Elena can enter cracks in the ceiling and floor, push switches and possess furniture. Again, it’s all beautifully creepy. The idea of astral projection is an appealing one and worked into a video game it’s not only appealing but brilliant. I would love to see it more in the horror and adventure genre and I wish Whispering Willows had just a little bit more gameplay depth so that it could have really showed off such an interesting and attractive idea.
Whispering Willows projects more of a feeling of an interactive novel than a problem-solving adventure. The puzzles themselves are very easy and while this game is clearly more about the story, a little more complexity wouldn’t have hurt. The puzzling aspect does seem more suited to children, however I wouldn’t recommend Whispering Willows to a young child unless you want your little one to sleep with the light on and the wardrobe door sellotaped shut for the rest of his or her life. Did I mention this was a spooky game? The ghost bugs and the glowing red eyes did it for me. There’s a can of insect spray on my bedside table right this moment. That stuff works on phantom bugs, right?
Whispering Willows is a short game, running at only a few hours, but it’s perfect for an afternoon of relaxed/freaked-out gaming. Thank goodness for short games. With AAAs rarely dropping below twenty hours and often topping a hundred, and with so many indies sporting old-school high difficulty levels, it’s great to have some titles are that are made to be played with your feet up in the only few spare hours you might have that week. There’s certainly always room on the Punk and Lizard shelves for some quickies to break up the grinders, the teeth-gnashers and the epics.
Bold but shadowy graphics, a suitably eerie soundtrack and creepy sound effects finish off a charming little game that has a touch of a soul. Fans of emotion-driven games such as Never Alone, Toren and Valiant Hearts should enjoy all Whispering Willows has to offer. I have a soft spot right in the centre cavity of my mediastinum for these sorts of games. Whispering Willows, like the others I’ve just mentioned, is trying to say something. I’ll give no spoilers, but do expect to question both the extraordinary compassion and unspeakable brutality of humanity.
What Whispering Willows lacks in the way of challenges it more than makes up for in its overall presentation. Everything seems to fit. The graphics, the soundtrack, unnerving story and disturbing gameplay all work in a wonderful sinister synchronization that adds an extra thick layer of eerie tension. Whispering Willows is a pleasure to play even if you do have to check under the bed afterwards.
S J Hollis Rating – 8/10