The Whispered World hands-on archived preview
A title like The Whispered World might lend itself to speaking in hushed tones, but one thing at least needs to be shouted out loud:
This game is gorgeous!
See what I mean? Okay, I know I’m stating what is instantly obvious by even a quick peek at the above or any other screenshot released, but the good news is that the game looks just as nice in motion. I recently had the chance to discover that for myself from an early playable demo of Daedalic Entertainment’s fantasy adventure. And while the version I played represented a very raw alpha build, with many updates and improvements yet to come, it’s not too early to offer a few first impressions.
If the name sounds only vaguely familiar, perhaps that’s because of its on again-off again development history. Originally begun as a grad school project by Marco Hüllen, the game was picked up and promoted as one of the flagship titles by the ill-fated bad brain entertainment. When the fledgling German publisher folded, the future of Whispered Wor[l]d (as it was known then) looked bleak. Fortunately, up stepped Daedalic, another new German company, to snatch the project from the scrapheap, immediately bringing Hüllen back on board and determined to make the game bigger and better than ever.
With development once again well under way, now the only thing looking bleak is the future in the game itself. A young carnival clown named Sadwick has a disturbing dream that foretells of the destruction of the world. Worse still, the prophecy decrees that Sadwick himself will somehow be responsible for the catastrophe unless he can change the current course of destined events. His family scoffs at the dream, and there is little visible evidence of impending doom in the early stages, but young Sadwick is determined to do what he can. And so he and his pet caterpillar Spot (“not a worm!”, Sadwick insists) set out to the Autumn Forest in pursuit of his quest.
Guiding Sadwick using traditional third-person, point-and-click controls, the environments I explored took me to the depths of a darkened cave, the shores of a lake, the wooded heart of the forest, and even to a crumbling ancient ruin set against the backdrop of a beautiful waterfall. The lovely orchestral soundtrack sets the mood nicely, and each 2D background is wonderfully hand-painted in a distinctive art style that’s cartoon-like without being cartoon-ish. The colour palette is rich and varied, and each scene is so lavishly detailed that in this demo version it proved difficult to find hotspots. Daedalic plans to address this by making interactive items more noticeable, and by adding an optional key function to reveal hotspots. But before you even start looking for items you need, it’s guaranteed you’ll want to stop and soak everything in, probably with your mouth gaping open.
If you stop, though, you won’t see it all. The Whispered World not only scrolls side-to-side, but makes excellent use of parallax scrolling in the process. As you guide Sadwick across the screen, elements in the background move slower than those in the foreground, providing a delightful sense of 3D perspective. And that’s on top of the ambient animations themselves, from smoke rising to a stream trickling to a clothesline swaying in the breeze. Even at this early stage, there is movement in virtually every scene, and yet according to Daedalic, there is more yet to be implemented.
Even the secondary characters are fully animated. They don’t move around on screen, but they do gesture distinctively, like Sadwick’s brother Ben practicing his juggling, or the family dino-creature Bruno snoring soundly. Sadwick himself is not your ordinary clown. No red bulbous nose or rainbow-coloured hair here. He’s not quite a crying-on-the-inside clown either, but he is a fairly serious young man and dressed in muted greens and browns. Ever splooshing (well hey, that’s what it SOUNDS like) along at his side is Spot, who is absolutely adorable. Sidekicks can be pretty hit-or-miss attractions, but the misses tend to result from being overly yappy, which isn’t a problem here since Spot never speaks. But if he’s not big on conversation, he is an integral part of the gameplay. You can “use” Spot at any time by clicking on him, though he isn’t much help in his natural form. Fortunately, he’s a talented little caterpillar who can learn new abilities, such as filling himself up with water and setting himself on fire (without harm, naturally), and these talents become necessary to solving various puzzles. It’s a terrific gameplay mechanic that was used several times in the demo, and I hope is expanded in the full game.
Once Spot has learned a new skill, you can easily switch between them by clicking an icon from a drop-down menu. The rest of the interface is quite conventional, though not quite as streamlined as many modern games. The Whispered World has three interactive options at any give time, and you choose between talk (or “use mouth on”), look, and use by left-clicking and holding to call up a verb menu. I’m not entirely convinced that the talk option is relevant enough to warrant the added step, but at least in the early going, Daedalic has made a concerted effort to vary the many responses to optional interactions. There don’t seem to be a ton of non-essential items to click on, but enough to make you feel like you’re not simply following a trail of interactive bread crumbs.
In fact, the demo occasionally left me feeling like I wasn’t being led much at all. It’s not that the clues weren’t available, but the goals could be fairly ambiguous at times, making the puzzles feel a bit more random than they should. Daedadic is fully aware of this, however, and has already been working hard to clarify Sadwick’s motivation and give the game a more defined story thread to help address this problem. The early challenges seem a nice blend of inventory puzzles and multi-part riddles. A few of the object combinations might strain at the edges of credibility, but make a certain degree of sense within the world’s own internal logic.
Of course, this Whispered World is anything but a standard setting, so a little imagination is as important as intuition. I was pleasantly surprised at its originality, forsaking the standard fantasy trappings of ogres, elves, and dwarves in favour of squabbling rocks, helpful will-o'-the-wisps, and giant anglerfish. At least in the early going, I felt like the world had been specifically created just for the game, rather than simply dropping a new story into a generic Tolkienesque land.
Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much about the overall story from the preview demo alone, so what I don’t know about The Whispered World still far outweighs what I do. And even in the chapter I played, there is work yet to be done. But there’s still time to do it, and Daedalic is showing an impressive commitment to getting it right, which should bode well for a more polished final product. In the meantime, its one chance to make a good first impression has left me plenty encouraged by what I’ve seen so far. It’s too early yet to make any bold proclamations, but if its design refinements can match its already-stunning production values, The Whispered World will surely be a game that everyone is talking about in the coming year.