If your father was missing, what lengths would you go to in order to save him? This is the main premise of Whispering Willows, an indie horror-adventure game originally released in 2014. In September of this year, the Switch port was released, and so I decided to check it out.
In Whispering Willows, you play as a young girl named Elena Elkhorn who is able to transform into a ghostly version of herself through the use of her mysterious amulet. In order to find her missing father, Elena goes to the Willows Mansion. By solving puzzles and helping the ghosts that reside there, Elena slowly uncovers clues that will lead her to him.
Becoming A Ghost - I love this mechanic. Elena uses her pendant in order to create an astral projection of herself. This awesome ability allows Elena to navigate her environment quickly and solve puzzles. In ghost mode, you can move furniture, possess keys, or use levers and switches to help your human side progress further.
It's All In The Details - The artwork for Whispering Willows is impressive and beautiful, and this primarily rests within its intricate details. No two rooms look the same at the Willows Mansion. Subtle details help to differentiate the rooms, such as objects, different wallpaper or the presence of different spirits. Even though the sprites are tiny, you can still see the strands of Elena's hair, the shadows and folds of her clothing and the tiniest button on her dad's jacket. The ghosts will have different injuries or gestures which gives you some information on how they died.
Haunting Audio - The sound effects and track to the game are excellently composed and placed. Without the sounds, this game would be far from spooky. When you're in ghost mode, gongs and bellows echo throughout the hallways you haunt. In the main mansion, a piano plods along at the pace of dripping molasses, giving you the sense that it's not a real person playing that instrument. The music is interrupted by the sounds of creaks and thuds, like doors being closed in other parts of the home.
Outside, the music is faster but the tone is darker. It mixes with the sounds of rustling reeds and grasses, giving you the sensation that you're being hunted. If you're brave enough to stand still the right amount of time in this game, Elena emits a high pitched, shuddering sigh. The first time I heard it, I flinched, thinking that another ethereal entity was drifting behind me. Nope, just my girl being creepy.
Not Really Horror - If you've ever seen the movie Coraline, that will give you a strong sense of exactly how scary Whispering Willows is. Although it's tagged as a horror game on Steam and is included in Nintendo's curated collection of "spooky" games, it's offered little more than creepy audio so far. I'm a gigantic baby and need to play most horror games with all the lights on, but I'm hardly moved by this game. I don't think it's too much of a problem that it's not scary, but to call it a horror game is pretty misleading.
Please For The Love Of God Just Let Me Run - The pacing of Whispering Willows is slow. There are a lot of environments to explore, from the catacombs to the mansion to the guesthouse. Part of the reason as to why it's slow is because there are so many puzzles to solve, and there's multiple rooms. But it certainly doesn't help that Elena moves at the speed of an arthritic 300-year-old Galapagos Island tortoise. For someone who is desperate to save her father, she's certainly in no hurry to do so. The only time when Elena will run is during an action scene or when she's outside in the grounds. This makes my gameplay experience frustrating, to say the least.
Addressing Native Americans - The history of the Willows Mansion is grounded in the genocide of Native Americans. The protagonist herself is Native American, belonging to the fictitious Kwantako tribe. Her father also has Kwantako ancestry. This representation itself is super cool! I can't think of many games that feature female Native American protagonists. As Elena finds notes and letters from the ghosts throughout the estate grounds, you get a disturbed picture of the atrocities committed there. But she doesn't seem to react to learning more about her cultural history. I'll be honest, I'm concerned that the topic of genocide will not be handled sensitively or worse, that it will skirted over entirely.
Awkward Story Telling - If there's one thing I hate when I'm playing a story-driven narrative, it's too many letters and notes that you have to read. Whispering Willows chooses to tell its story through these methods, rather than cutscenes and dialogue. What little dialogue there is in the game is related to quests, and the cutscenes that I've endured so far are little more than awkwardly placed quick time events. I don't hate reading, but when you're only into the second chapter of the game and there's almost 20 notes from five different people sitting in my inventory, I can't help but wonder, is this really the best way to tell the story?
So far, Whispering Willows does very little to distinguish itself as a sidescroller. The only unique aspect of this game is that you can create a ghostly version of yourself. Even the art, which is beautifully designed, doesn't help the game stand out from any other spooky venture. And the story, which is largely told through notes and letters that you find around the grounds, isn't unique, either. I'm hoping that the ending will make my entire venture feel worthwhile to me, but I have a feeling that it won't.