Whispering Willows is a fairly typical haunted house/ghost story, but a good one at that. Well-paced from a story perspective and just about the right size, it is a good way to spend an evening or two. Gameplay is rather simple, which puts it close to the territory of being an interactive story, but not quite there. The game makes a pretty bad first impression and you spend too much time slowly walking around, but if you can get over these issues, then Whispering Willows is an adventure game that is worth your time.
In Whispering Willlows, you play as Elena, a spiritually gifted descendant of the Native American tribe that used to live in the area. You have arrived at the Willows mansion in search of your father, the groundskeeper who has gone missing. When you arrive at the mansion, you immediately discover your spiritual powers, and you use these powers to communicate with other spirits, solve puzzles, and unlock the secrets that the mansion hides. Whispering Willows doesn’t try to revolutionize the haunted house genre. You explore creepy locales. You meet ghosts. Some of them are scary and threatening, while others are lost confused souls in need of help finding eternal rest. In the meantime, you find journal entries from the enigmatic man who built the mansion, and his friends. Through the interactions that you have with the other characters and the notes that you find, you piece together the history of the mansion and solve the mystery of where your dad has gone.
The game’s story is ultimately simple, but it is enjoyable thanks to its well-written, nuanced characters. The centerpiece of the story, Wortham Willows, is especially interesting. Halfway through the story, you may find yourself wondering if he is a good guy or a villain. By the end, you may still be wondering the same. His companions also have interesting backstories and you will probably find yourself caring about their fates. One of the better aspects of the story is in how well it progresses and rarely gets bogged down in side threads that you don’t care about. Whispering Willows is only a three or four hour game with no filler. It comes to its conclusion satisfyingly without overstaying its welcome. If it is guilty of anything, it would be that its slightly hokey, stereotypical take on Native American spirituality is a bit overplayed.
Whispering Willows straddles the fence between the gameplay-less interactive fiction genre (e.g. Gone Home) and the traditional point-and-click adventure genre (e.g. Broken Age). It does have item collection and puzzles, but they are very rudimentary affairs that involve picking up whatever is available and using them in obvious situations. Elena can transform into a spirit to manipulate distant objects, get through cracks in walls, and talk to other spirits. Her necklace glows when a spirit is nearby, and most instances where you need to turn into spirit form to get past an obstacle are fairly obvious. In just a few places, threatening enemies show up that you have to somehow avoid. The puzzles fit well within the game and while there aren’t any brainbusters, they have enough substance to make you an important participant in the story. Puzzles shouldn’t give you much trouble, but the game’s layout is an issue. It is a sidescroller, and it can be hard to tell whether the edge of the screen is a wall or a door. You may occasionally find yourself wandering around in circles because you failed to notice an important door. It is the game’s most significant source of difficulty.
As mentioned, the worst part about Whispering Willows is its beginning. You start off the game in some boring catacombs where the puzzles involve just simple key hunting/level pulling and a lot of backtracking. The gameplay in this area is made worse by a curious design choice: not letting you run indoors. Whenever Elena is inside somewhere, she shuffles along slowly like an old lady who has just woken up from a long nap. Exploring and re-exploring areas that you have already visited quickly becomes a chore because of this. If you have to backtrack across the game because you missed a detail somewhere, then having to walk through every room becomes that much more annoying. The indoor areas tend to be where most of the game occurs, so this problem is one that stays with you the entire game. Once you get out of the catacombs the areas get more interesting, but the slow walking speed is always a nuisance.
The rough edges in Whispering Willows are made smoother by the game’s pleasant colorful visuals and terrific artwork. The Willows mansion and its surrounding grounds are an interesting place, with dense environments and lots of objects in every area. It is easy to imagine this estate, which is now in disrepair, as having once been a majestic place to live. The game makes up somewhat for its short length with how richly it is packed with visual content. Whether it is a rundown, dirty kitchen, the front foyer of the grand mansion, or a game room with a pool table, there is always a lot to see in Whispering Willows. The Willows Estate oozes character and history.
When I first started playing Whispering Willows, I was somewhat turned off by it. Truth be told, if I hadn’t been reviewing it, I would have probably quit. I didn’t though, and I found most of the game to be a rewarding experience. It would have benefitted from quicker movement through most of its areas, and perhaps a little more challenge to its puzzles. Despite these issues though, its characters, scenery, and atmosphere are good enough to carry the game.