The Willows estate, once a luxurious haven for a group of white settlers in the Wild West of newly-colonised America, has jealously guarded its secrets over the centuries even as it crumbled to ruin. The latest is the fate of Elkhorn, the groundskeeper, who has gone missing while tending to the mansion. Shaken by a frightening premonition of his impending doom, Elkhorn’s young daughter Elena ventures into the malevolent clutches of the estate in a desperate bid to rescue him, thus setting off a chain of events that literally opens up numerous cupboards and crates full of skeletons, and eventually unearths a dramatic saga of death and destruction from a bygone era.
Whispering Willows, developed by Night Light Interactive, is suitably titled as solving the mystery of Elkhorn’s disappearance hinges upon Elena deciphering the whispers and echoes of the past, of those who lived – and died – at the estate. It’s a lengthy adventure lush with attractive side-scrolling screens and an intriguing backstory of how the West was won by the ambitious Wortham Willows, but falls short of its potential by failing to capitalize on its supernatural premise. There is no sense of tension to match the spooky atmosphere; the few inventory-based puzzles are too simple and insipid, and the game quickly becomes an exercise in drudgery as Elena is made to trek across the sprawling estate again and again and again in search of banal items like knives and rags.
My first run – or more accurately, lazy stroll – through the game took over six hours as Elena moved with all the alacrity of a tween en route to a math exam rather than one trying to save her father from the clutches of evil. Night Light has since released a ‘Run Elena!’ patch, and now she can run while traversing the estate’s grounds (not indoors, though, because her mother wouldn’t approve), which eases the frustration somewhat. But the soul-sucking backtracking is still there, and along with the already sparse interactivity, it ensures that this otherwise superlative production ends up being exhausting instead of exhilarating.
The story is divided into four chapters based on Wortham’s life. He started as a bright young prospector keen to set up a new phase of his life with his beloved wife, but her death on the fateful trip plunged him into deep depression. He eventually emerged from this low point to rebuild his life, but in the process developed an insane, dangerous obsession that cost the lives of many people, including most of the Elkhorn tribe and his own friends as well. These people now inhabit the mansion as ghosts and are illustrated in gruesome detail showing how they died. There are ghosts with mangled body parts, some with knives sticking out of them or their heads half blown off by musket fire, and even a ghost-dog with a peculiar half-skeleton body. The creepiest creatures of the lot, however, are a bunch of bony white, chittering, spidery things that scurry about the mansion unless locked up in cages.
Elena learns the history of the estate from the numerous notes scattered about, written by its erstwhile residents: Wortham, his lover Fleur La Rue (a local dancer with whom he had a clandestine affair), and his longtime friend and aide Darby O’Halloran. The counterpoint to the settlers’ stories comes from the notes of Flying Hawk, a shaman of the Elkhorn tribe, who gives his version of the events as the white folk ventured into their territory and set down roots. Clues to Elkhorn’s disappearance come from cryptic notes left behind by him, providing insight into his investigation into the mystery of the estate. The notes, collated into a diary along with Elena’s own increasingly disturbed observations, provide intimate glimpses into the thoughts and emotions of these people as circumstances unravel, adding shades of grey to an otherwise typical tale of modern, aggressive invaders violently overthrowing a native tribe. The deeply personal motivations that fuel each character’s choices, above and beyond the sociopolitical prejudices between communities and people, gives the story a depth that almost compensates for the weak gameplay. The supernatural aspect blends well into the story given the mystical background of the Elkhorn tribe, and is used with a rare finesse that does not reduce it to a mere plot device.
The playing world is large, with many nooks and crannies. Elena’s quest starts in the catacombs below the estate, then expands to include the massive, three-storey mansion, a guest house, a conservatory of long-dead shrubbery, an observatory with a spectacular telescope, and a garden with a hedge maze. The mansion has several rooms with attached baths, a library, a music room, a multi-level kitchen, a wine cellar, an elevator, several crawlspaces and a basement. Though some locations are strategically opened and sealed off as the game progresses, for the most part you are free to explore as you wish. Presented as a cross-section, the decrepit mansion with its peeling wallpaper, dusty upholstery and ruined furniture looks like a morbidly charming dollhouse. But while the rooms are easy to navigate due to their distinctive designs, nondescript places like the catacombs and the hedge maze quickly become confusing as the same art is repeated for shelves, crates, barrels and statues. The extra wandering trying to get your bearings adds to the backtracking, and by the halfway mark you start to wish desperately for a map that would allow teleportation between at least the key locations.
The game is entirely keyboard-driven and starts with instructions about the simple controls. But in a case of too much of a good thing, the instructions pop up repeatedly throughout the game – for example, every time you encounter a ladder, you are told how to climb it. The basic premise of the story is that the veil between the living and spiritual worlds is very thin at the site of the estate, which is smartly linked to the game’s unique mechanism: using the shamanic powers of a Native Indian amulet – a family heirloom – Elena can switch back and forth between her human and spirit forms. The amulet detects supernatural presences, and in her ethereal form, Elena can interact with the ghosts to gather information and trade favours to further her quest – unless they are the sort that wants to kill her, in which case she has to return quickly to her human form and scoot from the scene. As a spirit, Elena can pass through cracks and holes in walls and ceilings, ‘possess’ items like levers and crates and use them to access places her human body cannot reach, and passively observe past events during flashbacks.Continued on the next page...