Adventure Gamers Awards
Most of the quests involve doing tasks for the ghosts to relieve them of their miseries. The sequence of quests is linear, which keeps the game on rails despite the freedom to roam around as you wish, and at any time Elena has only a task or two on her agenda. The puzzles are primarily inventory-based and require you to collect everyday items like keys and shovels to do mundane tasks like unlock doors and crates. The real challenge – and easily the most interesting aspect of the gameplay – comes from using both of Elena’s forms in tandem to solve many of these situations, which requires you to pay attention to the surroundings and plan ahead. There are a few timed sequences when Elena is chased by evil creatures, but these require precision of planning rather than button-clicking alacrity. Elena can die, but if she does, she regenerates at the start of the sequence that caused her death. The game saves on its own, and the patched version allows you to reload from multiple checkpoints.
Kitted out in a hooded coat and combat boots, Elena carries the game on her slim shoulders with great dignity and courage of conviction. She possesses the nonchalance of teenagers and takes the ghostly goings-on at the estate in stride as she easily embraces the powers bestowed on her. There are moments when her inner child bursts through, like her consternation at the ancient luggage in the attic or when she declares what her mother would or wouldn’t approve of, but at the same time she is singularly focused on her objective to rescue her father. Over time, the revelations in the notes and the all-pervading aura of grief, loss and evil start to weigh her down, and she yearns to return to the safety of her home. But it is at these junctures that she displays a level of maturity far beyond her years, persevering with her mission despite her every instinct pushing her to abandon it. Revealed mainly through their notes but also during their chats with Elena, the guest cast also have complex, realistic personalities. Darby, a nervous wreck torn between loyalty to Wortham and guilt at his own misdemeanors, and the kind but insecure Fleur are both memorable even in brief roles. Their memories of Wortham highlight the positive aspects of his personality, and endow him with a humanity not often accorded to video game villains.
Whispering Willows is a good-looking game, with neatly drawn characters set against realistic 2D backgrounds. It excels in particular at the interior mansion decoration, with tastefully designed, colour-coordinated rooms that have era-appropriate décor and furniture. Dusty streaks of light disperse the gloom just enough to create an atmosphere of melancholy, and in places drama is added by roaring fires or flickering candles. There are a few slideshow-style cutscenes, but most of the action takes place within the game. Elena walks, crawls, climbs staircases and swaps in and out of her astral projections with impressive fluidity, and her spirit form is elegant, with airy movements and floating hair. There are some interesting in-game flashbacks of significant events from Wortham’s life, including a séance, and a lot of care has been invested in giving the many monochromatic ghosts personalised tics and gestures.
There are no voiced dialogues, but Elena articulates her reactions through a range of gasps and giggles, and is especially proficient with a mm-mm and a quick shake of the head when she doesn't want to do something. Dialogues appear in boxes at the top of the screen, and are clear and instructive despite their brevity, which allows you to progress smoothly without wondering what to do next. Words and speaking styles are chosen carefully for each character to best illustrate their personalities and social status. In fact, a big strength of Whispering Willows is its writing, which is crucial since there is a lot of required reading for Elena. The notes describe the characters’ situations and dilemmas in eloquent detail, but at the same time do not wallow in verbosity, thus letting you feel each story without getting bogged down in reams of text.
Another plus is the understated soundtrack. The music is soft and spooky, with occasional ghostly whispers and echoes in the labyrinthine spaces. Doors open with chilling squeaks, the wooden flooring creaks and groans, and there are thumps and bumps in abundance, along with the unnerving chittering of the ubiquitous spider-like crawlies. The music gets more fervent during moments of crisis, so you get fair warning when extra caution is warranted.
There is much to appreciate about the production quality of Whispering Willows and its poignant story, which walks a tightrope between defining saviours and villains and keeps you engaged from the start of the adventure to the bittersweet end. It delves deep into the history of the colonisation of the United States by white migrants from Europe, but at the same time bases the story on individuals and their personal prejudices and motivations. Unfortunately, the simplistic – often to the point of boring – gameplay, along with poor design that attempts to prolong playing time by inserting hours of completely avoidable backtracking, reduces the experience to a grind. There are long intervals where nothing interesting happens, and there is no serious threat to Elena despite the dangerous scenario: there is no sense of peril, nor any scary moments, not even cheap thrills. You have little to do except read the notes, enjoy the scenery, keep the keys pressed while Elena ambles about the estate, and wish the game would end already. And that is extremely disappointing for a game made with obvious care, especially one which starts out with so much outstanding potential.